By Kirsten Williams,

SAC Consulting’s senior sheep and beef consultant

Fodder beet is a crop that has massive potential in Scotland for livestock.

Its benefits include a high yield potential, good digestibility, high energy crop, greater weed control options than brassicas and an ability to be grown in rotation with brassica crops in a livestock situation such as swedes.

It has the potential to be one of the highest yielding forage crops grown in Scotland, with root and top yields of 65-90 tonnes/ha (26-36 tonnes/acre). Dry matter content varies from 15-22% which means that the dry matter yield can be substantial. It should be viewed as a high quality forage with good palatability due to the high sugar content.

Fodder beet is a member of the beta vulgaris family and is not of the brassica family. That means it has good crop rotation value to minimise the risk of brassica-related diseases such as club root.

It mainly offers a high yielding alternative to the traditional swede grown for sheep, although the cost of production is higher. It is a deep rooting crop and an ideal break crop before or after grass.

Growing a crop, such as fodder beet, for utilisation through the winter, reduces the requirement for conserved forages and purchased feed stuffs increasing efficiency on farm. A high stocking density on the crop can be achieved in the winter months, which can eliminate the requirement for away wintering and associated haulage, rent, hassle and time. Carrying a high stocking density over the winter on forage crops allows grass leys to get a break from livestock, aiding early spring growth.

The crop is particularly high yielding if it is grown correctly. Though it is an expensive crop to establish, the yield achieved in a good crop allows for a highly cost-effective winter forage.

There are numerous varieties available but you must know how you plan to utilise the crop, eg harvesting or graze in situ, when choosing the variety to sow.

Basically, there are white-rooted and coloured varieties (orange and red). White-rooted varieties have a higher dry matter and have up to 80% of the root in the ground, these are well suited to harvesting.

The coloured varieties are lower in dry matter, meaning they are softer for livestock to eat. These coloured roots sit further out of the ground giving a good utilisation rate when fed in situ by livestock. Low dry matter roots are orange, as the dry matter increases the root is red and very high dry matter varieties are white.

Remember, whilst also choosing which variety to grow, selecting the most appropriate field is essential. The field should be relatively flat and the ground should ideally be a light to medium, free draining soil.

The crop will be utilised in the winter, therefore consider shelter and water. Provide a water trough with hard standing to reduce risk of poaching and nutrient run off into watercourses.

A grass run back should be offered to grazing animals, so bear this in mind when selecting the site. If the aim is to lift the crop rather than graze it, good access for modern machinery will be required.

The crop is suited to a high pH soil of greater than 6.5. The crop is nutrient hungry due to the yields that it reaches and so advice must be sought to the application of key nutrients, like nitrogen, phosphate and potash.

Fodder beet has developed over time from cultivars from the Mediterranean, which have grown in land with a high sodium content. Some soils in Scotland contain high levels of sodium, such as fen peats and silt, but most agricultural soils do not. For this reason, an application of agricultural salt is recommended to aid the desired growth and leaf expansion. Other requirements include, sulphur, magnesium, boron and manganese.

Fodder beet is a sensitive crop, which does not like competition, therefore weeds should be eliminated from the previous crop prior to establishment and weed seedlings in the growing crop must be cleared.