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Forage beets for backgrounding and finishing

Heather Smith for Progressive Forage Published on 27 November 2019
Fodder beets

The New Zealand cattle and sheep industries depend on an inexpensive supply of quality grass, but this feed is seasonal.

Lambs can be sold by the time pastures dwindle, but for beef cattle the lack of a continuous energy supply through the year means age of slaughter is typically 26 to 36 months, with at least one, and often two, winter periods that require purchased feed at twice the cost of pasture.

During the past two decades researchers have looked at alternative forages to fill seasonal gaps. Dr. Jim Gibbs (veterinarian and beef cattle research academic at Lincoln University in New Zealand) and colleagues have been working on this challenge. “About a decade ago, we developed a grazed fodder beet crop to accelerate beef cattle to earlier [14- to 16-month-old] slaughter weights [1,200 pounds]. This method has been taken up by the industry here, and other countries,” says Gibbs.

“These beets meet the requirements of low cost, high yields, high energy and continuity of supply across the seasons by supplying grazing feed in autumn, winter, and spring, as well as summer feed if harvested and stored,” he says.

Fodder beets in New Zealand

Fodder beet has been used in Europe since the Middle Ages, and was introduced to New Zealand in the late 19th century. European use was restricted by the idea that these plants were toxic to livestock. Typical use for livestock feed was after removing leaf material, storage, and in quantities below 6.6 pounds of dry matter. This approach was also followed in New Zealand until very recent times.

It was thought that anything above that amount was a killing dose for cattle. “In 2003, the crop area sown in New Zealand was probably less than 250 acres. Then some South Island dairy and deer farmers began using this crop for winter grazing as primary diet, as a kale and turnip replacement, convinced that the crop offered far greater yield and cost return. These farmers were strip grazing the standing crop behind a hot wire,” Gibbs says.

From that point there was steady increase in use of this crop. The national dairy industry funded Lincoln University in research. This work demonstrated the lack of any anti-nutritional compounds of practical significance, and showed high yields, low feed cost, and high-energy value. It also demonstrated the importance of gradually transitioning cattle to fodder beets and the use of minimal supplements to maximize beet intakes and minimize costs.

Five beef producers then worked with Dr. Gibbs on a project using fodder beets to finish beef steers before 18 months of age. “We drove maximum intakes by restricting supplement, and using unlimited intakes for up to 180 days,” says Gibbs. Accelerated finishing was accomplished using this energy-dense forage through winter.


When fodder beet is used in 440- to 550-pound calves for 120 days as the primary feed, with total intakes of approximately 2.5% of bodyweight, this intake rate can be maintained on fodder beets from early autumn to mid-spring, when pasture growth again begins to match consumption. After that, calves can graze spring pasture, having achieved average daily gains around 2.2 pounds during the preceding autumn and winter. This enables them to use high spring weight gains (typically greater than 3.3 pounds per day) to finish at 14 to 18 months.

“In this system, spring pasture can be fully used, with cattle achieving 660-pound carcass weight by summer. Calves going into this system at 440 to 660 pounds when weaned get at least 21 days on good-quality pasture at unrestricted intakes to develop capacity of the rumen for higher energy uptake,” Gibbs says.

“Clostridial disease is a concern on the high-sugar diet, however, so a series of two vaccinations is mandatory prior to beginning on this crop,” says Gibbs. “It’s also important to make a gradual transition. The calves require about 11 pounds of dry matter per day at the beginning, and the transition starts day one with about 1.1 pounds of fodder beet and about 9 pounds of pasture or palatable supplement.

Every second day for 14 days the fodder beet is increased by 1.1 pounds dry matter, and the supplement reduced. At 14 days the ration is 8.8 pounds dry matter fodder beet and 2.2 pounds supplement. After day 21, the amount of fodder beet allotted is expanded to what they want to eat each day, promoting maximal intakes, and the supplement is not increased as the cattle grow into larger fodder beet intakes,” says Gibbs.

Supplements used in raising 1-year-old cattle should have protein content above that of the fodder beet crop; nearly all grass and alfalfa silages will be of appropriate quality to supply the protein requirement and fiber. Additional protein supplementation is not needed. “Supplement is the principal feeding cost; feeding even a few kilograms more supplement increases dramatically the average feed cost, reduces the average energy content of the diet, and significantly reduces the fodder beet intake,” Gibbs says.

Rumen acidosis is the primary risk, but only during the transition period, and only if the forage beet allocation is excessive. “After transition, cattle are encouraged to eat as much as they can every day. Then there is no risk of rumen upsets with the amounts, or timing of supplements,” says Gibbs.  end mark

PHOTO: Fodder beets: Getty Images.

Heather Smith Thomas is a freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho.

Potential benefits

“This pasture-fed option can radically increase stocking rates and productivity. From collaborative work in the U.S., I am aware of the rise in grass-fed markets,” says Gibbs.

“Fodder beet is a high energy, high yield crop that ‘banks’ forage from warm-season growth to cold-season grazing use. The huge yields [more than 15 U.S. tons dry matter per acre] make this crop unique and very cheap.”

There is a large and growing grass-fed/forage-fed market, but productivity in these systems is traditionally low (one steer per acre and 2.5 years to slaughter). “Beet is a live feed so forage grazing fits this market, but stocking rates for finishing steers at 14 months are 10 per acre. Cattle are strip-grazed and moved daily. This feed is 50 percent sugar, and does weird precocious fat deposition – producing early fat cover and marbling. It has little carotene, so fat is white.”

The crop is sown in spring and grazed from autumn through winter. “This crop can facilitate two beef systems. Weaned calves at 6 months/600 pounds can start midautumn grazing for 150 days, gaining 2.2 pounds per day, stocked at 10 head per acre. Then they can have 90 days spring grass gaining 3.3 pounds per day. By then they are 1,200 pounds and can be slaughtered at 14 to 16 months at a 660-pound carcass weight (57% to 58% carcass yield) to produce elite quality beef,” says Gibbs.

In the second system, 18-month-old cattle at 950 pounds can graze fodder beets in late autumn through late winter [110 days], gain 2.9 pounds per day, and can be slaughtered off the crop at 1,300 pounds. “They can be stocked on this crop at 10 head per acre, and produce elite carcasses. This forage crop has gained the fastest popularity in New Zealand history, going from 250 to 170,000 acres in 10 years,” he says.

“At the moment, fodder beet seed is not commercially available in the U.S., though there is research and development seed accessible. The agronomy of fodder beets is broadly similar to, but also very different from, that of sugarbeet, of which fodder beet is the older cousin. We want high leaf proportion and high nitrogen (N) content, and high total yield [not sugar yield]. So we use more N fertilizer, and much later into autumn,” he says.

“There are firm rules for proper transitioning onto this crop, with 100 percent effective outcomes when obeyed and real troubles with shortcuts. This is why Europeans thought it was poisonous for 500 years. We never let producers just ‘try it.’ We smother them with help and direction. Otherwise, there can be disasters. For instance, last winter there were 190 cattle dead on one farm where the farmer thought he knew better than the advice given. Yet there were 1.1 million cattle on winter beet crops, all safely past transition, and the overwhelming majority of herds don’t have a single death. I’d be happy to give producers advice on starting out,” says Gibbs.

Finishing older cattle

Long yearlings or rising 2-year-old cattle can quickly increase their weight with an appropriately energy-dense diet. The current approach is to transition these cattle and then finish them to slaughter weights (1,200 pounds or more) within 80 to 110 days.

The transition starts with a total diet (17.6 to 22 pounds dry matter) on day one, with 2.2 pounds fodder beets. “This is important because fully fed cattle have a slower intake rate [which reduces rumen loading of dietary sugar from the fodder beet], and puts less pressure on fences. Older cattle start eating the bulbs better than younger cattle, so are at higher risk of rumen acidosis in transition when poorly managed,” says Gibbs.


The fodder beet is increased 2.2 pounds every second day for 14 days, while the supplement is decreased. From day 21, the fodder beet is fed with unrestricted intake, with 5.5 pounds of supplement fed daily. The supplement for older cattle does not contribute to feed energy or protein, only to the fiber content of the diet. “It is usually bought on price alone, with meadow hay or cereal straw the cheapest form available, but mature pasture can also be effectively used.

Weight gains achieved using harvested bulbs on pasture have been the highest recorded for beef in the trial work to date, above 4 pounds per day,” says Gibbs.