New research into fodder beet shows the crop can be a key part of dairy farm systems – but should make up no more than 30 percent of lactating cows’ diet and 60 percent for non-lactating cows.
The Sustainable Use of Fodder Beet research project looks at nutrient and mineral interactions, and impacts on long-term animal health and welfare. A literature review undertaken as part of the project has confirmed the crop’s benefits and challenges.
“Fodder beet will continue to be a key part of New Zealand dairy systems – but it should not be seen as a complete diet,” says DairyNZ senior scientist, Dawn Dalley.
“Fodder beet is widely used on South Island dairy farms and is a versatile, high energy, high yield crop which allows cows to put on body condition quickly, if transitioned correctly. This makes it an attractive option for farmers. But because of the high sugar content, careful transitioning onto the crop is critical.”
The use of fodder beet has increased over the past decade and today around 55,000ha is estimated to be planted annually in New Zealand. Most fodder beet is grown in the South Island – with the project survey showing 79 percent of Canterbury/North Otago farms and 58 percent of South Otago/Southland dairy farms feed cows the crop.
In recent years, some farmers have become concerned about potential health effects on herds. Cows can develop ruminal acidosis, milk fever or nutrient deficiencies if fodder beet is grazed for long periods without appropriate alternative feed and mineral supplementation.
Recent research and nutritional modelling has reinforced current recommendations that – for consistent herd performance and to minimise nutrient deficiencies – fodder beet should make up no more than 30 percent of the diet for lactating cows and 60 percent for non-lactating cows.
Dr Dalley says many farmers are successfully combining fodder beet with other feeds to provide cows with a diet that meets nutritional requirements and is cost-effective.
“By using feed testing which includes mineral composition analysis of fodder beet and other feed, farmers can tailor cow diets to address any nutrient deficiencies. Using this approach, fodder beet can be a valuable feed option which contributes to a productive dairy system.”
Fodder beet is a hardy autumn and winter crop with environmental benefits. The beet’s low nitrogen content results in reduced urine nitrogen concentrations, leading to less nitrate leaching from animals grazing the crop, compared to kale. It is also an important break crop in winter rotations which use kale and swedes, and allows farmers to successfully crop areas affected by brassica disease.
Dr Dalley says that regular communication and good planning is needed between dairy farmers and graziers to develop winter feeding plans that are affordable, easy to implement and meet environmental and animal welfare regulations.
Steve Penno, Director Investment Programmes at the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), which is providing $565,000 towards this million-dollar project, says this research offers an important insight into the use of fodder beet on-farm.
“Animal health and welfare is a key priority for MPI and this research will help farmers ensure their cows are eating a healthy proportion of this crop.”
The cross-sector project on the Sustainable Use of Fodder Beet on New Zealand Dairy Farms is funded by MPI’s Sustainable Farming Fund (now superseded by Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures) and from DairyNZ’s levy, and it involves PGG Wrightson Seeds, AgResearch, Plant and Food Research, farmers and vets. It is currently one year into a three-year research programme.
 The survey sample size was 285 farmers in Canterbury and North Otago, and 223 farmers in Southland and South Otago.