Fodder beet is a high yielding, palatable, energy crop for grazing ruminant livestock on throughout the winter period. This can be utilised both in the field (in situ) or it can be harvested and fed in house.
Grazing fodder beet requires care, with a planned transition period for all livestock both going on to the crop and coming off it. Before stock can go onto a beet crop they should be vaccinated (and receive their boosters) for Clostridial diseases, the reason for this, is the high sugars can feed the clostridials in the intestine.
The leaf of the beet crop holds the protein and minerals, whereas the bulb holds the energy and water. As winter progresses the leaf will die back limiting the level of protein and mineral available from the plant. Many producers choose to bolus animals prior to grazing on the crop, to ensure mineral requirements are being met.
The transition for sheep and cattle is slightly different due to their different grazing habits. Cattle transition must be strict and planned out. Both should be done over a period of time as outlined below.
Grazing sheep on beet in the winter allows for a high stocking density, while allowing the grass a rest period. The high energy bulb is well suited to rationing pregnant ewes on, and less suited to finishing lambs.
Sheep are selective grazers, and will naturally transition themselves slowly onto fodder beet, often choosing to eat the easy material first e.g. leaf and grass. The fodder beet should be offered behind an electric wire, stepping up the level of feeding slowly over time, with the sheep being offered the beet for a few hours at the start and increasing the duration daily. Be careful not to offer too much crop initially or they will not eat the bulbs, a 2-3 day fence shift allows for a good balance of beet and bulb.
Sheep can be selective on the palatability of fodder beet, for example if it is dirty, or if it has been challenged agronomically or the cultivar is sour. In some cases, some sheep won’t eat the bulb, in this scenario they should be removed from the crop.
A grass run back should be offered to the sheep, as grass supply reduces and leaf dies back, other forage should be offered to the sheep e.g. hay/silage.
Fodder beet can be offered to dry cows and growing cattle. It should not be offered to animals that are not fully ruminating (less than 6 months of age). A maintenance diet for dry cows can be achieved, as can a growing ration for weaned calves and forward stores.
The transition of cattle onto fodder beet should be timed and planned, slowly stepping up the level of feeding over a 21 day period. The beet is high in sugar and has an energy level comparable to barley, for this reason beet should be treated as a wet cereal and introduced gradually to prevent rumen upset such as acidosis.
The transition period also allows for cattle to learn to eat the beet, which is different from how they eat grass. If this is done too quickly and they get a mild dose of acidosis, there is every chance they will associate the crop with feeling ill and choose to eat other forage supplied e.g. silage instead of the beet.
The first step of transition should be understanding the yield of the crop, to allow for daily allocations to be calculated. The method for this can be found at fas.scot/downloads/technical-note-tn761-fodder-beet-for-beef-systems/
The cattle should start on 1kg dry matter per animal per day, this should not increase until all of the cattle are eating the bulbs readily. At this stage the daily allocation can be increased by 1kg dry matter every two days until they start to leave the crop. The remaining part of their diet should be forage (hay, silage or straw). If there is a green headland surrounding the field then animals can forage on this with plenty of access, failing this feeders can be used, but all animals should have the ability to access the feeders, trailers are typically better than ring feeders given they have more head space. As the animal’s daily allocation on to the crop increases then the other forage will decrease. This can decrease to 2kg dry matter for adult cattle and 1kg dry matter for weaned/growing cattle.
The crop should be offered behind an electric wire, this should be moved on a daily basis. It is a good idea to have a break fence set up with the next day’s allocation, limiting the amount of beet cattle could eat if they break through the fence.
Remember as the winter progresses and the leaf dies back in the fodder beet, the level of protein and mineral in the ration from the beet will decrease. Understand the requirements for the class of stock being grazed to identify if they need this supplemented through high quality silage or additional inputs.
Top Tips for Transition
- Calculate the yield and allocate the crop on your findings
- Vaccinate for clostridial infections prior to introducing to the beet
- Transition on to the crop should be planned, for sheep this should be gradually over 7 days, for cattle this should be gradually over 21 days
- Ensure there is feeding space for each animal at the beet – sheep 0.3m/animal, cattle 1m/animal
For more information and discussions on fodder beet visit:
Kirsten Williams, SAC Consulting, senior sheep and beef consultant
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