Feeding fodder beet


11 min read

Should I feed fodder beet? Animal health risks Making transitioning easier Podcasts Transitioning in summer/autumn Transitioning in winter

Fodder beet is a feed option for cows that requires careful planning to avoid health issues such as acidosis. Before feeding it, you should measure your crop yield and test the leaf and bulb to determine its nutritional content. Transitioning cows to fodder beet involves adapting their gut microbes to its sugar-rich content. Too quick a transition can cause acidosis and even death. There are health and environmental risks tied to fodder beet, so good management is essential. For a successful transition, observe your herd regularly, ensure equal access for all cows to the feed, and separate experienced from inexperienced eaters. Practical tips include having adjacent grass paddocks and ensuring correct feed allocation.

Should I feed my cows fodder beet?

Fodder beet requires careful planning and feed management to avoid acidosis and to ensure your cows receive sufficient nutrition.

Before feeding fodder beet, we recommend you measure your crop yield and test the leaf and bulb, as this can vary for each crop and will likely impact your management decisions. The key consideration when transitioning cows onto fodder beet is adapting rumen microbes to a change in feed type.

Rumen microbes must adapt to the fodder beet bulb's sugar-rich content and the targeted level of intake to prevent acidosis and other non-acidosis related disease, e.g. liver dysfunction, chronic inflammation, deferred ketosis.

This differs from brassica species where the main objective of transitioning is to adjust the rumen microbes to changes in feed quality and anti-nutritional compounds. If cows are offered too much fodder beet too quickly, it will result in rumen acidosis and, if severe enough, death.

Animal health risks associated with fodder beet

There is emerging evidence of animal health and nutritional risks associated with the consumption of fodder beet, however many of these risks are not fully understood. Good management such as controlled transition practices and consideration of animal nutrient requirements minimizes the risks to animal performance.

There are strategies for managing the environmental challenges of cows grazing crops at high stocking rates, and good management should not be ignored.  See cows on crop for strategies to minimise the impact of winter fodder beet on the environment.

The main areas of uncertainty relate to mineral supplementation requirements (especially where fodder beet is being fed in late autumn, winter, and spring), crude protein and amino acid intakes in high fodder beet diets, and longer-term system implications e.g. reproduction, milk composition, longevity.

Metabolic issues

  • Understand fat deposition with fodder beet feeding ie. internal vs external fat and the rate of gain/loss.
  • Understand liver function in cows feed fodder beet and the impact on cow health and subsequent production.
  • Quantify the impact on reproductive performance including pregnancy losses and metritis.
  • Understand the impact of high-sugar diets on digestive processes.


  • Understand the carry-over impact of clinical and sub-clinical acidosis (duration and size).
  • Develop feeding strategies to minimize acidosis.
  • Determine the metabolic and physiological changes when cows come off fodder beet and the need for transitioning off options.

Low protein intake

  • Determine the impact of low protein intake on subsequent performance in our systems and develop feeding recommendations.

Low phosphorus

  • Determine the type and amount of P supplementation required at all stages of fodder beet feeding.
  • Understand the impact of low P diets on bone reserves. The main areas of uncertainty relate to mineral supplementation requirements (especially where fodder beet is being fed in late autumn, winter, and spring), crude protein and amino acid intakes in high fodder beet diets, and longer-term system implications e.g. reproduction, milk composition, longevity and bone development in young stock.

Practical factors to make transitioning easier

  • Have a grass paddock adjacent to the fodder beet paddock and run cows on and off the crop during the early stages of the transition period.
  • Leave a headland of 6 m and plant in Italian ryegrass or a multi graze cereal crop e.g. oats for supplement making during the season and to provide feed and space during transitioning.
  • Harvest the fodder beet to make a headland before starting to graze and use the harvested fodder beet fed with supplement through the silage wagon on a pasture paddock for the first few days of the transition process.
  • Always offer fodder beet on allocation as a time-based approach could increase feed intake and is not recommended and will help cows from leaving residual crop in the previous days’ breaks for cows to eat later: good eaters will increase their intake too quickly.
  • We don’t recommend moving the fence an extra metre or so on a cold, wet day to fill the cows up: some cows will increase their allocation too quickly.

Observations when transitioning

  • Observing the herd regularly during the transition period (not just in the first 5-10 minutes of crop allocation) is important to ensure all cows are eating the crop at low allocations.
  • Non-eaters may initially take an interest in the crop and even graze the leaves when the break is opened up or beets are fed on the grass paddock, but will soon move off onto pasture or supplement, leaving a higher allocation for the remaining animals.
  • If you have only observed the cows for the first 5-10 minutes you will not notice this behaviour and will therefore continue to increase the allocation, now at a rate, to those eating the beets, higher than the recommended 1 kg DM increase every second day.
  • The key to good results during transition is to ensure all cows have equal access to the crop, whether it is grazed or spread in the pasture paddock from the silage wagon and that they have sufficient time to try it. This means at least 1 m of face width on the crop. Allocations lower that this will result in younger and timid animals being bullied off the crop.
  • Try to avoid mixing experienced and naïve animals together during transitioning. Naïve cows take time to familiarise themselves with the crop. Where possible it would be an advantageous to transition naïve cows separately from those that have eaten fodder beet previously.
  • We don’t recommend leaving animals who have not adapted in the mob and continuing to increase the allowance: the crop they don’t eat will be available for other cows to eat, increasing their allocation at a rate faster than recommended.

Is fodder beet the right crop for you? Take the quiz and find out!

Download the feed checker tool to assess current and proposed diets ↓ FeedChecker calculator (xls)

Talking Dairy podcasts

Episode 25: Fodder beet - know what you're feeding

Does fodder beet have a positive future as a feed for cows in New Zealand? What are some key things to consider when feeding beet through winter? And how do you put systems in place to maximise cow performance and animal health, while also minimising fodder beet’s risks? Here to answer those questions, and more, are DairyNZ scientist Dr Roshean Woods and veterinarian Dr Charlotte Westwood. Roshean and Charlotte have been involved in a three-year research project on fodder beet and they share the results with us.

Listen on:

Episode 31: How fodder beet's use has evolved

Fodder beet offers many benefits as an alternative crop to brassicas, but it also presents risks and challenges. So, what can we learn from recent research about how to deal with those risks and challenges? How have farmers adapted their feeding practices over time? And do we have all the answers or is there more research required? In this episode DairyNZ senior scientist Dawn Dalley summarises recent research findings, and North Canterbury dairy farmer and veterinarian Trish McIntosh joins us to share her experiences of using fodder beet.

Listen on:

Transitioning to fodder beet in summer/autumn

Factors to consider in summer/autumn when cows are in late lactation.

The relatively low protein, fibre, calcium, and phosphorus content of fodder beet creates an upper limit to how much can be fed during lactation before additional supplementation of these nutrients is required.

Fodder beet nutrients

  • Protein (11-13% when offered as leaf + bulb; 7-8% bulb only)
  • Fibre (NDF < 15%)
  • Calcium (0.4-0.5%)
  • Phosphorus (< 0.2%)

Recommended feeding levels

  • Lactating cows (upper limits): Grazed fodder beet 5-6kg DM. Lifted, bulb only 4-5kg DM

  • Transition levels: Start at 0.5-1kg DM/cow/day and increase no more than 1kg DM every second day. It generally takes at least 14 days to get to 5kg DM

  • Tip: When feeding lactating cows, don't feed more than 30% of the diet as fodder beet

Recommended upper limits to feeding lactating cows

  • Grazed fodder beet 5-6kg DM, or lifted bulb only 4-5kg DM - when offered above these levels, the low protein intake can reduce milk yield and animal health issues related to low fibre (poor rumen function) and phosphorus and calcium intakes (production losses, SCC issues, down cows) can occur. Seek veterinary advice if you are concerned about mineral intakes.
  • Recent research results indicate potential amino acid deficiencies (arginine and citrulline) above 30% fodder beet in the diet. The long-term impact of these changes requires further examination to ensure it is not having a negative effect on other metabolic processes.
  • Until there is a better understanding of the long-term impacts of high fodder beet diets, farmers should remain cautious with their fodder beet allocation to lactating cows.

Practicalities of feeding during lactation

  • Grazing is always the most cost-effective method of offering crop but increased walking between the pasture and crop paddocks can increase the risk of lameness, at a time when the prevalence of lameness is often increasing in our pasture-based systems (autumn).
  • Mastitis can be an issue if cows are grazing fodder beet in wet conditions.
  • Commercial harvesting where the leaf is flailed off and the bulb stored for later use offers the most flexibility. If stored correctly the bulbs will last up to six months.
  • Daily or weekly harvesting with a “beet bucket” is possible if the beet is close to/on the milking platform. Leaves will rot within a week therefore harvesting needs to occur regularly, which can be a challenge if conditions get wet.
  • Not all varieties are suitable for lifting – higher DM varieties are better.
  • Both lifted options can be fed through a silage wagon onto pasture or fed on a feed pad with silage.
  • Fodder beet is highly palatable and can affect grazing behaviour on pasture. If feeding immediately after milking only allow access to the crop once all cows are back in the paddock.

Transitioning onto fodder beet in the lactation period

The same principles as non-lactating cow transitioning apply during lactation to avoid rumen acidosis from cows consuming too much too soon. However, access to ample other feed during lactation, because beet is a smaller component of the diet compared with wintering, and the need to maintain milk production makes transitioning during lactation more challenging.

Recommended transition feeding levels

  • Start at 0.5-1kg DM/cow/day and increase no more than 1kg DM every second day. It generally takes at least 14 days to get to 5kg DM.
  • It is important to ensure ALL cows transition so that no cows are left behind and without going too fast that others eat too much and acidosis results. Initially, up to 30-40% of the mob may ignore the fodder beet so the remaining 60-70% can overeat.
  • Provide sufficient space and time – a least a metre of face width if grazing and the same for beet spread out in the paddock through a wagon and at least 1 hour so that all cows have time to try it.
  • Using the tractor wheel across the row to break the bulb may help encourage cows to try it.
  • Watch the cows for more than just the first couple of minutes to determine whether they are all eating. Cows may walk across and sniff it and maybe try the leaves but not touch the bulbs.

Transitioning to fodder beet in winter

Fodder beet's high quality means the feed is digested quickly so the cows have the capacity to eat more.

Consideration to the amount of crop and supplement to feed should be given to the balance of nutrients that the diet will provide and the rate that the crop can be consumed.

A fibre source such as baleage, silage, hay or straw, is required to make the cows feel full for longer so they don’t wander the paddock looking for feed once all the crop is consumed.

Fodder beet nutrients

  • Protein (11-13% when offered as leaf + bulb; 7-8% bulb only)
  • Fibre (NDF < 15%)
  • Calcium (0.4-0.5%)
  • Phosphorus (< 0.2%)

Recommended feeding levels

  • Cows being fed fodder beet in winter (upper limits): Grazed fodder beet 9-10kg DM
  • Transition levels: Start at 1-2kg DM/cow/day and increase no more than 1kg DM every second day
  • Tip: When feeding lactating cows, don't feed more than 30% of the diet as fodder beet.

Pros and cons of the two winter feeding systems

Generally, if the diet contains at least 30% pasture silage/baleage the risks of nutrient imbalances will be reduced. Fodder beet systems have evolved to where beets are offered to appetite with reduced amounts of supplement.

70% crop with pasture baleage or silage Fodder beet to appetite with straw or silage
◦ Easier to differentially feed mobs for BCS gain
◦ Higher crude protein intake


◦ Lower cost winter diet

◦ Reduced risk of acidosis if breakouts occur because cows are not hungry
◦ Easier to allocate crop in paddocks with uneven yield

◦ Higher cost
◦ More challenging to accurately allocate fodder beet each day in paddocks with uneven crop yields
◦ More risk of acidosis if total DMI is restricted and cows break out or the paddock yield is variable


◦ Potential for more over conditioned cows at the end of winter
◦ Cows on a very low crude protein diet, especially if the supplement is cereal straw

◦ Lower mineral intake

Factors to consider
◦ Fencing to control breakouts

◦ Crop allocation in paddocks with variable yield

Factors to consider
◦ Managing high body condition score cows
◦ Protein intake, especially with growing cattle.


Transitioning steps for non-lactating cows

The same principles apply for cow transitioning in the wintery to avoid rumen acidosis from cows consuming too much too soon.

  • Strict allocation of fodder beet on a DM basis over a period of at least 14 days is essential.
  • Allocation should start at 1-2 kg fodder beet DM and increase by no more than 1 kg DM every second day for 14-21 days – i.e., up to a maximum of 9-10 kg DM/cow.
  • If ad libitum intake is the target, from day 21 the break line is then increased a little each day until the cows leave fodder beet behind.
  • Supplement/pasture inputs need to provide the additional energy to meet cow requirements, so start at 8 kg DM on day 1 and drop to 4 kg DM by day 14; then 2-4 kg at day 21 and thereafter.
  • Even if cows have been consuming fodder beet during lactation they still require additional transitioning up to their winter allocation, using the 1 kg DM every second day approach (e.g., if feeding 4 kg DM during lactation and through the drying off period then on day 1 of winter transitioning offer 5 kg DM, day 3 offer 6 kg DM, day 5 offer 7 kg DM etc.).
  • A strategy is required to deal with the 10-20% of animals that may not consume fodder beet during lactation. These are the at risk cows in the early stages of transitioning.

Low protein intake on winter fodder beet diets

  • Fodder beet bulbs are very low in crude protein i.e. 7-8%
  • The protein content of the whole plant will be dependent on the leaf: bulb ratio and also the crude protein content in the leaf.
  • Many winter fodder beet diets ('ad-lib' fodder beet plus cereal straw) will not be meeting the 10-12% diet crude protein recommendation for non-lactating cows.
  • While it is widely accepted that ruminants can survive on low-protein diets because dietary N is converted to microbial protein, which is then used by the animal, the rumen microbes still require N to produce microbial protein. In several experiments, rumen ammonia concentrations have declined to very low levels 6-8 hours after feeding and remained low until the following morning. The impact of this on production and health requires further investigation.

Fodder beet wintering and environment

Leaching losses measured following grazing of fodder beet crops on light stony soils at Ashley Dene, Canterbury, were 50-60 kg N/ha. Comparative losses from kale crops on the same soil type were 60-80 kg N/ha.

Lower losses are observed with fodder beet because of the low crude protein (nitrogen) in the crop and therefore less nitrogen is deposited in the urine patches.

This does not mean good management should be ignored. Implementing good environmental management practices on-farm is not only efficient – it helps to minimise risk to your business and reduce your environmental impact.

Last updated: Sep 2023
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