The challenges of dry summers and increasing input prices have tempted one East Lothian beef farmer into trying out fodder beet for finishing his beef cattle.

Almost a year later, Anderson Waddell has no regrets, and is now committed to a crop each year.

In May 2023, his contractors sowed 6ha (15acres) of plant breeder Limagrain’s Robbos fodder beet and lifted about 120 tonnes per hectare fresh weight (50t/acre) of the crop in November. He has recorded good intakes of this high-energy feed and found an improvement in the finished cattle.

The Scottish Farmer: Store cattle enjoying Robbos fodder beet as part of the finishing ration at HerdmanstonStore cattle enjoying Robbos fodder beet as part of the finishing ration at Herdmanston

Anderson runs Herdmanston, a 150-hectare (370-acre) beef and arable family farm at Pencaitland, East Lothian, 14 miles south-east of Edinburgh. He buys around 160 six-month-old suckled male calves, between October and December each year from Stirling, Lanark and Islay markets. About 75% of these calves are Charolais crosses, and the rest are mainly Limousins.

These calves go out to grass the following spring at around 300-400kg liveweight and are then housed from 430kg to finishing weights of 650-700kg.

Indoors, cattle get a diet of grass silage, straw molasses and home-grown bruised barley, mixed with protein in feed troughs. This year the ration has been supplemented with chopped fodder beet.

“By October each year, I can have about 280 cattle on the farm, so I need a reliable source of high-quality feed,” he said, adding that the dry summers have knocked back silage yields and increasing input prices have affected the cost of growing barley. “So, I was keen to look at alternative home-grown feeds to eke out supplies of silage and reduce my reliance on feed barley. The farm is self-sufficient in feed supplies.”

The Scottish Farmer: Robbos fodder beet is proving easy to feed at Herdmanston and the cattle have an appetite for itRobbos fodder beet is proving easy to feed at Herdmanston and the cattle have an appetite for it

Many friends in the area grow fodder beet so Anderson asked around for some tips and took the recommendation from his seed merchant Dods of Haddington.

“The reliability and consistency of fodder beet yields and its feed value made it an attractive option, and the variety Robbos, which is tried and tested, was recommended and a lot around here grow it. So, it seemed like a good option to start with,” he added.

The crop was sown into prepared land following a spring barley crop. Anderson applied plenty of farmyard manure on the stubble prior to ploughing and one fertiliser treatment while preparing the seed bed.

“Input costs after sowing were relatively small considering the yield – just three weed treatments were applied between May and June. Establishment was good and despite some dry conditions, the crop kept growing with one additional application of fertiliser.”

His contractor lifted the crop in November – which Anderson admits was later than planned due to the wet weather conditions. “But, it yielded well, and it’s certainly taken pressure off the silage and barley. Cattle have grown well and they’re killing out better.”

However, he wants to improve the chopping equipment – last winter he used a Ritchie Root bucket feeder which was not ideal.

“I’ve still a bit to learn with growing and feeding fodder beet but it’s just what I needed in the diet and it’s cost-effective,” he added.

“And I also have plenty of organic matter on the field to promote soil health and reduce nitrogen use ahead of the next crop of spring barley that will be drilled in March. So, fodder beet is giving me just what I wanted from a forage crop – it’s a win-win for now,” Anderson said.

New fodder beet trial results

The latest fodder beet trial results from Limagrain UK crops grown and harvested in 2023 highlight improved yields of newer varieties, and the consistency and robustness of the crop in variable growing conditions.

Fosyma leads the ranking of 16 commercially available varieties on trial with a dry matter yield of 20.42 tonnes per hectare which is 12%, or 3.15t/ha, above the control Magnum. Tadorne and Brick share joint second with relative dry matter yields 9% above the control. Fosyma and Brick are Rhizomania tolerant.

Longstanding variety Robbos maintains high yield scores and the advantage of only 60% of the root on the ground giving it an advantage for lifting and for grazing livestock in situ.

Fosyma combines high dry matter yield with a clean red skinned root and a relatively high proportion (35%) sitting out of the ground. This makes it suitable for grazing in situ as well as for lifting and it carries less risk of soil contamination than the deeper-rooted varieties. It also has a high tolerance to bolting which is particularly beneficial in more extreme seasons. Cold springs followed by warm weather can encourage bolting.

Tadorne and Brick are slightly deeper rooted than Fosyma with 25% of the root out of the ground. This gives them excellent winter hardiness.

The 2023 results are added to the company's annual trials results that have been collated since 1998. “They show the success of newer varieties of fodder beet like Fosyma and the increased value of new varieties that are now available,” said John Spence, Limagrain forage crop product manager.

“But the results also show the consistency of dry matter and fresh yields each year of fodder beet, particularly varieties such as Robbos, despite varying weather conditions.

“Regardless of wet or drought conditions in the growing season – and we’ve had both in the past few years – the crop still yields high dry matters and energy values around 13MJ per kg of dry matter. Farmers and growers can rely on fodder beet for its contribution to homegrown forage and a valuable grazing crop or feed for including in total mixed rations.”

The 2023 trials also compared primed seed with unprimed for each variety and although only one year of results are available, there appears to be clear benefits in both plant establishment and yield of varieties that have been primed.

“Farmers use the trial results to select the variety best suited to their system and conditions, so for the same growing costs they can make sure they get the best yields and feed value for their livestock,” he concluded.

Limagrain UK publishes its annual trial data, available to all growers to enable them to make informed decisions. There are no recommended lists for fodder beet. Limagrain UK’s latest fodder beet trial results are available from its website