But it's also a crop with challenges and complexities at planting and feeding and it pays to treat the beet with respect.
Peter Davies of Ngakuru near Rotorua believes fodder beet offers great potential for North Island dairy farmers seeking a supplement option. Yet the beet’s appeal wasn’t an instant one for Peter and he offers some valuable cautions around the crop’s establishment and feed allocation.
“We just managed to get 20 tonnes of dry matter per hectare (t DM/ha) which is a bit light. The problem was the crop was in its infancy and there wasn’t a lot of knowledge about it, or equipment suitable for planting it. However, I could see the potential for it; it just needed some work,” says Peter.
Fast-forward to three seasons ago and a drop in payout prompted Peter to review all his feed costs and revisit the beet.
“We’d also experienced a drought over 2012 and had been buying in maize silage at unsustainable prices so we were keen to consider an alternative feed source.”
In the first three seasons, Peter opted to sow the beet on his 112ha milking platform, putting in 3.5ha each season. Key developments since his earlier efforts included the development of precision drills for higher and more effective sowing rates and improved herbicides for critical weed control.
Laying the groundwork
Peter cautions much of the cost comes upfront in the considerable ground preparation to achieve a fine seed bed. Also, close attention to weed control is necessary because of the crop’s slow establishment period, he says.
His preparation typically involves ploughing the top 10cm just to turn weed seed over and then a light power harrow to smooth the seed bed prior to drilling.
But investing the time and money from the outset will grow a crop capable of delivering yields of 25t DM/ha and more over time if it remains in the ground.
“This year’s crop was 22t DM/ha in March, 25t DM/ha in April, and was up at 32t DM/ha by July,” says Peter.
Vigilant at transition
Much has been publicised about the risks of feeding fodder beet to dairy cows, with cow illness and death being reported in mainstream media most winters. But Peter says he’s avoided any “horror story” outcomes to date, thanks largely to some careful transition feed management.
“We’ve not lost cows, but you do have to be vigilant over transition and right through the period that you’re feeding beet.”
The risks of over-feeding beet include a milk fever-like condition where cows go down. Peter’s had a couple of cases of this, with cows responding to a standard milk fever remedy of glucalphos.
“When transitioning, we’ll put them on a beet break for 20 minutes on day one, half an hour for day two. On day three we’ll shift the break out and leave them on for longer again.”
After 10 days, about 90 percent of the herd will be fully engaged with the beet. He warns other farmers to observe the proportion of beet left behind after each feed and to avoid simply opening a new break each day, effectively increasing the total quantity offered.
“We tend to have a bit of a dilution effect too. The cows at the end of the season are getting silage and maybe some PKE (palm kernel extract) too, so they are only getting 3-4kg DM of beet each.”
Milking the benefits
Beet has enabled Peter to milk comfortably into May, something the farm struggled to achieve before. And this year he’s also sown them on the support block for winter grazing.
“We’d already transitioned the cows on the milking platform. Then at the support block we feed them on beet for three hours, then run them off again into a stand-off paddock with some silage. It’s worked well.”
Peter constantly emphasises to his staff the need to be vigilant grazing the beet, and all breaks are double fenced. “Every day we check the power to make sure the fence is working.”
He determined the area to feed based on requiring a 100t DM/ ha crop, based on a yield of 25t/ha or about 4ha.
For Peter, a key benefit of growing fodder is its flexibility – it can be fed from maturity in summer, right through winter.
Being fed in situ is cheaper than having to distribute feed on a feed pad. The beet’s bulb ensures minimal waste from a high yielding crop. Its high energy content means it's also capable of delivering good body condition score gains over winter compared to alternatives like kale.
Pete's top tips
- Paddock selection (don't pick your worst paddock) and ground preparation are key.
- Don't skimp on weed sprays even though they can be expensive.
- Be vigilant for at least the first two weeks of transition and the rest will be easy.
Veteran's advice for beating fodder blues
Mark Slee of Hinds in Canterbury could be described as an old hand at fodder beet cropping, having planted his first 6ha crop 10 years ago. This winter, he’s grazing his cows through 95ha of beet.
Sharing Peter’s cautions around investing in a good planting programme, Mark also has some valuable observations about transitioning cows to fodder beet. In recent years, more farmers (himself included) have grazed autumn milkers on fodder beet before they move to higher intakes as wintered dry cows.
“But it’s an area people can get caught out on,” says Mark. “Taking a milking cow eating 15kg DM/day, of which beet may be 4kg DM, you need to cut them back to only 2kg DM/day of beet at drying off, given you are lowering their total DM intake by over a third. I would recommend keeping them on 2kg DM/day once dry and ramp it up over a period after that.”
Mark emphasises that it’s easy to think the cows are ‘transitioned’ to beet while milking, but the job is in fact only half done; you need to start reducing the cows’ fodder beet intake levels when drying off. Keeping them at milking levels exposes them to acidosis risk.
Working on an average intake per head is also dangerous, he says. As much as 10 percent of the herd may not be interested in the beet, while other cows will be consuming well above average.
Fussy about feeding
When it comes to reducing acidosis risk and easing transitioning, Mark starts off not using supplement feeders for allocated straw or hay; instead he spreads it on the ground to allow all cows easy access.
“The feeders will only allow 20 to 30 cows access at any time, and dominant cows will claim it, meaning others don’t get that balance of feed they need.”
To balance fodder beet’s high carbohydrate content and corresponding low protein, fibre and phosphorus levels, Mark uses high-protein feeds like quality grass, grass silage or lucerne.
“That low protein level needs to be addressed when you’re feeding them to growing young stock, like rising one- or two-year-olds that demand protein for muscle and frame development,” says Mark.
“It’s also important to be patient with beet. Be prepared to take two to three weeks to get the cows transitioned to their complete diet and, once you have, you don’t want to change anything in terms of cow numbers or feed type.”
A riskier crop than most
Knowing a mass acidosis outbreak could occur if a break fence fails, Mark ensures his team double-fence the breaks, with the second fence right next to the first.
“That means if the cows do get out, they’ll tend to just graze the tops off the bulbs across the whole paddock, lowering the risk of acidosis. Otherwise, they’d hoe into the bulbs if it was a set break in front of them.”
Another risk is that cows with good body condition scores wintered on a beet diet will come back fatter than is healthy, increasing the risk of metabolic disorders.
“We’re considering planting less and being more selective in the future - maybe just feeding our rising one and two-year olds and lighter cows on it. The well-conditioned mixed-age cows have grazed on kale this winter instead.”
Overall, Mark acknowledges the appeal of fodder beet, with its high metabolisable energy, high yield and low waste. But he is quick to point out that it’s a riskier crop than most for wintering cows.
Mark's top tips
- Monitor cow condition (BCS 5 cows may be better not wintered on fodder beet).
- Don’t let cows get hungry – allow access to plenty of supplement during transition.
- Fodder beet is low in protein, fibre and phosphorus, which all need to be addressed before grazing starts.
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy September 2017