Boost your forage knowledge

With the feeding season for fodder beet upon us, Dr Jim Gibbs, a fodder beet grazing expert from Lincoln University in New Zealand (NZ), held a meeting for AHDB focusing on making the most of fodder beet in beef, sheep and dairy outwintering systems, by sharing expertise and experience from NZ.

Jim explained: “Over the years, grazing fodder beet has been developed to be a profitable and productive system for farmers back home to fill the gap where grass or conserved forage is not available.

Beef systems managed correctly (in New Zealand) will support a daily liveweight gain (DLWG) of 1–1.3 kg/day on fodder beet and 1 kg of grazed grass alone.”

The key to successfully grazing fodder beet is to strip graze, using an electric fence to maximise crop utilisation. Each strip (break) should be long and narrow but allow all animals access to the crop at once, including the most timid animals. Ideally, the fence needs to be moved daily. Strip grazing small areas will provide the most efficient utilisation while grazing larger areas will increase trampling and wastage.

Start grazing from the top of a sloping field, rather than the bottom, to reduce run-off. Avoid channelling stock through gateways to adjoining fields to minimise poaching.

Figure 1. Example plan for establishing a feed face in a fodder beet crop

Transitioning stock onto fodder beet

The key to avoiding digestive upsets is to introduce stock to fodder beet slowly on full stomachs.

Jim explained: “Ideally, start by allowing the stock access to the crop for one to two hours a day, building up to unrestricted access after seven to ten days. This is similar to adapting stock to a diet high in wheat or concentrates, which is done over a period of 14 days.

Transitioning is about teaching the animals to eat at a rate that will not cause damage to the rumen because they won’t be able to teach themselves when they have had enough because they won’t get any feedback until it’s too late.

During transitioning it is important to make sure the correct level of supplementation is provided so that cattle do not go hungry and break through the electric fence and gorge on the fodder beet. The transition period is very important as it only takes an extra 1-2 kg DM to kill an adult cow in the first few days of transition, but once cattle have been adapted on to fodder beet they can eat as much of it as they want.

Jim said: “Physical and practical guidelines have been developed to help with the transition period to ensure a smooth transition onto fodder beet.”

The guidelines are:

  1. Limit the amount of dry matter (DM) you are putting in front of the stock with an electric fence
  2. Make sure all cattle are eating the fodder beet by allocating one metre of face length per animal, instead of allocating on a DM basis, to allow plenty of room for each animal to eat, including the shy ones
  3. Remember that it can take up to a week for some animals to get up to a normal appetite on fodder beet (even if they have previously been outwintered on fodder beet)
  4. Provide enough graze grass at the start
  5. Reach maximum intake in a 14 day period
  6. Have a big enough non-beet run-back area.

“Animals are never completely transitioned until they are eating their maximum intake. If you hold their appetite below maximum and they break through the fence and eat more it can be a problem. If they increase intake by more than 2 kg day they will be at a risk of developing clinical acidosis, even if they have been on the crop for a few months. When they are eating as much as they can, they can’t get sick anymore!” Jim explained.

Sheep are the easiest stock class to manage on fodder beet. They are good at managing their intake and you can successfully transition them onto the crop through grazing the flock for a few hours a day. It is important to remember that sheep will require a leaf-to-beet ratio because the leaf is the source of protein essential to maintain adequate DM intake.

If you are thinking of incorporating fodder beet into your system next year, follow Jim’s top tips for success:

  1. Select appropriate fields
  2. Carefully assign stock classes to the fodder beet
  3. Good agronomy is key to capitalise on fodder beet benefits
  4. Make sure you seek out good advice from other farmers with experience, agronomist, nutritionist or your consultant
  5. Don’t give up after the first year – it takes time to perfect!

For more information take a look at the AHDB BRP manual Using brassicas for better returns.