Over the last 10 years the use and application of fodder beet as a winter feed crop for livestock has changed significantly in New Zealand. In 2007, there were less than 1000ha planted here, mostly in Canterbury and Southland. That’s now increased to approximately 75,000ha across farms throughout New Zealand.
Initially, fodder beet was grown mostly for dairy cow wintering, an attractive alternative for farmers struggling with winter brassica crops. Currently leading the way in feeding fodder beet to their stock are Canterbury farms (79 percent) and Southland farms (58 percent). Lower North Island farms (19 percent) and West Coast/Nelson/Marlborough farms (27 percent) are the next highest users of fodder beet. However, fodder beet is being grown in all our major dairying regions now and it’s used widely across all classes of livestock.
It’s now become common for cows in Canterbury and Southland to have fodder beet in their diet for up to six months of the year and 40 percent of replacement animals are wintered on fodder beet. In these regions, increasing areas of fodder beet are now lifted and fed on feed pads or through the silage wagon on the paddock. Although more northern regions grow fodder beet as an alternative lactation supplement to palm kernel extract (PKE) and maize silage, in the south it has replaced grain and pasture silage during lactation; and swedes and kale during winter.
Research – then and now
With a long shelf life either in the ground or harvested, fodder beet is a flexible crop with lots of positive attributes – but it also carries several risk factors.
Early research by DairyNZ and Lincoln University focused on generating guidelines for transitioning cows onto fodder beet and understanding the nutritional variability of the crop. More recent research (also levy-funded by DairyNZ) has investigated the nutritional and metabolic changes associated with feeding beet and its contribution to reducing nitrate leaching and methane emissions. Agronomic research by Plant and Food Research Ltd, Foundation for Arable Research and others has focused on responses to a range of nutrients (nitrogen – N, phosphorus – P, potassium – K, sulphur – S) and irrigation. It’s also been identifying the range and extent of disease in fodder beet crops; and the mineral profile of the crop nationally.
More recently, we carried out a DairyNZ levy-funded survey of farmers and veterinarians about fodder beet feeding. Their greatest concern was the unknown impact of increasing fodder beet feeding on lifetime performance, as well as links between metabolic disease (including acidosis) and lactation performance, reproduction and milk quality. They also wanted a better understanding of the P requirements in systems feeding fodder beet; and reliable mineral supplementation methods for cows on crops during winter. Both groups thought there was a need to identify good management practices for transitioning cows off fodder beet (an area currently not well understood). Increasing use of fodder beet in dairy replacement diets was also a concern due to potential protein and mineral deficiencies at key periods in the animal’s growth cycle.
Here’s what our survey farmers and vets told us about the drivers:
- Cost – fodder beet can be a cheaper alternative for either lactation supplementation or for wintering.
- Yield – they can get higher yields, reduce the size of cropping areas and achieve more sustainable crop rotations.
- Quality – from an energy perspective, they can obtain a highand consistent-quality feed from fodder beet.
- Body condition score (BCS) gain – it’s easier for them to achieve this with fodder beet than with other crops.
Most of the farmers interviewed (66 percent) said fodder beet is considered to be a permanent addition to their farm system. The rest said they were either undecided or not going to continue using it (11 percent).
Here’s what the farmers told us about the issues:
- Agronomic – some farmers said (depending on other variables) the cost of growing the crop didn’t always stack up as an alternative. Weed control challenges and within-paddock variability were also common factors to consider.
- Metabolic – farmers and vets saw an increased incidence of metabolic disease and some farmers had difficulty with transitioning their stock onto and off the crop.
- Environmental – many farmers noted an increased risk of soil compaction due to a high stocking density driven by high yields.
- System-related – growing fodder beet increased the complexity of the farm system. Farmers said they needed to give more attention to detail throughout the preparation, growing and feeding cycles of the crop.
Where to from here
There was a genuine desire by the farmers and vets surveyed to get a better understanding of the longer term implications of fodder beet management and feeding practices so it remains a viable crop for future dairy systems. Many felt that some current practices are making it less likely that beet will achieve this goal. Overall, more research, education and practical advice is needed to achieve this outcome for the industry.
- Fodder beet has many positive attributes – but its risk factors need further exploration/management, alongside a better understanding of feeding issues.
- Potential benefits include flexibility, cost, yield, quality and BCS gains.
- Potential risks: agronomic, metabolic, environmental and system-related issues, and the unknown impact of increasing fodder beet feeding on lifetime performance.
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy September 2017