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Managing The Transition Onto Forage Crops

6 September 2021

It takes around three weeks for rumen bugs to adapt to a change in diet.  If we change diet abruptly, the rumen struggles to cope and digestive upsets occur such as bloat, acidosis and/or loss of performance.  If done badly, you can put the livestock off eating the crop altogether and, in severe cases, farmers have lost livestock due to poor transitioning.

A good transition will give the livestock a gradual introduction to the crop, to get to know it slowly to encourage them to eat it and do well.

How to… transition on to brassicas

Sheep: provide 1-2 hours access per day on a full stomach and return to original management, likely grazed grass.  Gradually increase this window of time over 5-7 days and observe to ensure all are eating the crop.

Cattle: as with sheep but over a 10-14 day period.

How to…transition on to fodder beet

Sheep: as with brassicas above

Cattle: cattle will gorge if they are provided with too much even in a short space of time, therefore you need to restrict amount by measuring the crop and moving the fence appropriately.  Unlike sheep, they should be introduced hungry to get them used to the crop.  A 21-day transition should be planned to reduce acidosis risk.

They should start on no more than 1kg dry matter per animal per day (this is often about one row of fodder beet if providing 1 meter space per head but we advise that farmers weigh the crop to determine fence movements) – increase this allowance when all cattle are eating the full crop readily.  Provide 1 m of linear fence feed space per animal.  Lifting roots and providing them in the field is another way to start the transition in a low-risk way, this helps them learn how to eat the bulbs without the additional effort of pulling them out of the ground, but they will still need a three-week transition when they start grazing the crop in situ.

For all forage crops

Plenty access to other forage such as grass, hay or silage helps reduce risk of issues occurring (ideally the maximum dry matter intake from forage crops should be 70%). A good electric fencing network is essential to prevent breakouts and risks of gorging.

Things to watch for:

  • Livestock not eating or losing condition. Observe carefully, they might seem like they are all eating the crop in the first 20 minutes, but some individuals might move away.
  • Clostridial disease risk is higher on fodderbeet– vaccinate before introduction to the crop and remember booster vaccinations.
  • Mineral deficiencies – the grass/hay/silage help provide additional minerals but often further supplementation will be required.
  • Choking – small bulbs (4-8cm in diameter) can cause choking – again supplying additional forage helps reduce this risk as they would be less likely to gorge.

Poppy Frater,

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