There is good research on growing fodder beet being done by scientists and by innovative farmers.

Beet more than just a crop

Tom Ward

I could start with the words: “Fodder beet continues to be an interesting crop for finishing beef cattle,” however it’s not a crop, it’s a part of a system – one with three parts.

Those parts are high winter animal growth rates, high winter stocking rates, and high utilisation of, and response to, early summer pasture.

The overall plan is to grow as many kilograms of beef per hectare as fast as possible, minimising feeding for maintenance, minimising interest costs and optimising meat quality (marbling)

Once you have planned the programme out, a full-farm, or at least a partial farm budget covering all variable costs, must be completed and compared to the alternative programmes.

Part of the benefit of fodder beet is that it is a good feed well into spring, until sufficient pasture is available to seamlessly transition back to pasture.

Some of the fodder beet should therefore be a lifting variety, so that sufficient is planted to cover a slow spring, and if not needed, lifted and stored or sold. In addition, a very wet winter spell might require fodder beet be removed to a drier feeding site, eg: cattle can be fed at various (dry) sites around a farm with FB available in palm kernel trailers.

There is good research on growing fodder beet being done by scientists and by innovative farmers. We are seeing the need for and timing of, nitrogen, phosphate and potassium fertilisers critically reviewed. Also, there is much better understanding of herbicide, fungicide and pesticide applications.

Seeding methods and rates are being experimented with, and sowing dates. In many cases the costs of growing the fodder beet, especially in cents/kg drymatter, are reducing.

In summary, get a good farm adviser or farmer you respect to help with detailed advice.

Dairy farmers, in addition to wintering on fodder beet, or partly on fodder beet, are using the crop to milk on in May.

Sheep farmers are wintering ewes and lambs on fodder beet, even lambing on the crop.

Breeding cows are being successfully calved on it, giving the cows excellent early lactation nutrition, and bulls of all descriptions are being grown out in late summer.

Nevertheless, there is some disappointment with fodder beet.

Many beef fatteners are frustrated with being unable to achieve 1kg liveweight/head/day. In my district a farmers group decided they had proved 1kg LW/head/day was not possible, at least in inland areas.

It is my view that in that study there was only one mob of cattle of sufficient quality, and which also received sufficient quantity of fodder beet, to potentially grow at 1kg LW/head/day.

The animal side of the fodder beet programme is just as important to the success of the system as the plant side. The drivers to maximise liveweight gain and minimise losses are: feeding, animal quality (genetics), age, size, health and environment temperature.

Feeding. It is worth restating that fodder beet is for fully feeding cattle. This is an animal safety issue as well as an animal production issue. You have not transitioned your cattle until they are eating at least 2% of their body weight, and as the animals’ liveweight increases they need more feed.

If you do not want to grow an animal, do not feed it fodder beet, unless it is combined with other feeds. If you do want to grow the animal, feed only fodder beet, plus maybe 1kg of pasture or silage for added protein. From an animal viewpoint it is all about ease of consumption, so a variety which sits up out of the ground and is easy to kick over and eat from the side is useful.

Brigadier is excellent in this regard, and will still yield well.

Animal genetics. The farmers doing the fodder beet fattening programme very well all have very good animal genetics. These animals are either from a beef cattle stud, or very closely related to, and purposely selected from, a beef cattle stud. While Jim Gibbs’ research was at a coastal Canterbury farm, nearly all the others are well inland.

Age.  Clearly yearlings (R2 in the winter) have the potential to grow faster because they are bigger and more mature, but so do autumn-born steers (ie: one year old when they go on to a winter fodder beet programme).

Size.  Gibbs’ research showed the larger calves (300kg LW), as a mob, grew faster, but the group of smaller calves (240-260kg LW) had many individuals which grew equally as well.

Health.  Acidosis due poor transitioning onto FB has been well discussed, but what is less well known is that a recent study by Gibbs and Prendergast suggested that with ad-lib feeding rumen pH in fact rises. Clostridial disease is a risk so a 5:1 vaccine should be used. Phosphorus can be a problem transitioning back to grass.

Environment temperature. No doubt high winter liveweight gains are easier to achieve on the coast, however a number of farmers in inland areas of the South Island are getting close to 1kg LW/head/day in winter. In the United States on grain, where feedlots are often in cold climates, high daily winter LW gains are achieved and in the same location, when the weather is poor, very low to minimal LW gains per day occur.

Averaging. Farmers need to look beyond the average mob liveweight gain, to the performance of each animal. Some of the reasons for poor individual performance will be management-related, however over time the manager will also identify the relative performance of different animals from different breeders.

The manager can then be more accurate with which animals are purchased, and lift the average performance of a mob. Alternatively, if the manager is forced to buy a mob despite not liking all the animals in that mob, or if some do not transition adequately, the undesirable animals can be withdrawn or sold, the sooner the better.

In addition, the growth rates, finishing characteristcs and efficiency of animals from the same breeder may vary. Ideally, we should not be buying cattle through the saleyards, but have a relationship with a breeder so that the finisher understands the feeding and genetics of each calf being bought.

  • Tom Ward is a farm consultant based in Ashburton.