Fodder beet can offer input and cost savings in multiple beef rearing scenarios. Dr Jim Gibbs offered some advice on the best approach for beef farmers in a recent AHDB webinar. Hannah Park reports.
Ever tightening margins and a growing supply chain interest in forage-based systems may have led an increasing number of producers to consider whether fodder beet has a place in their system.
Speaking in a recent AHDB-organised webinar series on fodder beet, Dr Gibbs, vet and research scientist in rumen nutrition at Lincoln University, New Zealand, discussed various fodder beet grazing systems for growing beef cattle.
Setting the scene, Dr Gibbs said that while the popularity and marketability of pasture-fed systems may have risen in recent years, the issue with these for many was a seasonal feed deficit. Addressing that issue in late autumn, winter and early spring is where fodder beet can fit into the production system.
However, he added that getting the best results from the crop requires careful management and attention to detail alongside considered paddock selection and design.
When putting weaned calves onto fodder beet, special requirements Dr Gibbs outlined included a priority that animals are vaccinated against clostridial diseases, drenched and trace element requirements are met before they go onto the crop.
Younger animals are also fussier, he said, and therefore require leafier and more palatable types of the crop, upright varieties which are out of the ground are preferable here, which becomes less of an issue in older
Careful stock transition is also needed, Dr Gibbs added, to allow a period whereby the stock can be adapted to the high quality beet feed and so young animals can be trained to be behind an electric fence, given the way the system works on a strip grazing platform.
He said: “Typically, weanlings would be put out onto good quality grass for about a three-week period before transitioning to beet. This is important to adapt the rumen, especially if animals are coming from an environment where the quality of feed has been quite low.”
Animals are then transitioned onto the crop until they are achieving unrestricted beet intakes, although it is crucial they are fully fed and in positive daily liveweight gain territory through this period.
Beet allocation is restricted at first, with the daily dry matter requirement topped up with supplement. The animal’s daily appetite cycle at this time should be used to an advantage here, said Dr Gibbs.
He added: “This would see animals put onto the correct dry matter allocation of beet at the time of day when they are hungriest, after which the supplement is fed.
“Once all of the animals are eating the bulb, not just the leaf, beet in the diet can be raised.
“It is important post-transition that they are on a restricted supplement intake.
“Animals then stay on the crop at maximum intake, with minimum and restricted supplement, through late autumn and winter, until there is ample available for unrestricted intakes of good quality spring grass.”
In adult finishing systems, cattle typically enter at 18 months old. Animals here are taken from mid-autumn through winter and taken to slaughter directly off the crop, there is no period after where they are on pastures.
“As in the younger calf system, animals must be kept fully fed and in positive daily liveweight gain territory through transition period onto beet, until all of the animals in the mob are, again, eating bulb, which is typically achieved over a shorter time frame than with younger calves.”
Crucial to this system, Dr Gibbs said, is that the right amount of supplement is allocated.
He added: “There is a sweet spot with the supplement supply in the diet. If animals are given more than what is required, liveweight gains will dramatically and quickly reduce.
“Unrestricted access to a lot of supplement is a sure way to reduce profit in these systems. If you supply it, they will eat it, as it is easier for them to eat that than chip away and eat the beet.”
All animals must also have access to it. “200 young animals will not get around one bale feeder,” he said.
He added that for finishing cattle the supplement must be high in protein.
“It cannot be straw or poor quality hay, it has to be at least the crude protein off the crop or above. Wherever possible, strip grazed pasture is preferable and after that good quality silages,” Dr Gibbs said.
Maximising intakes in beef cattle, he advised, also required a shift in thinking in the amount of feed left behind in the field, based on three day allocations.
He said: “To achieve maximum intakes on beet, when you go to move the line the next day, you have to have 25 per cent of the dry matter which was allocated yesterday still on the ground, the day before that there should be 10 per cent of the dry matter and the day before that 5 per cent.”
Primary benefits of a beet grazing system for beef cattle, Dr Gibbs highlighted, included its ability to increase on-farm productivity, by providing a means to facilitate high stocking rates at a time which could be considered a vulnerable point in the production cycle.
He said: “It can also facilitate the capacity to more efficiently make use of availability of spring flush, is a highly efficient use of land, while being a way to bring forward the sale of slaughter stock which are of a high carcase quality.”