Economic viability of fodder beets as winter forage for cattle in Eastern Oregon

Final report for FW18-013

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2018: $19,419.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2019
Grant Recipient: Willamette Valley Lamb
Region: Western
State: Oregon
Principal Investigator:
Cody Wood
Willamette Valley Lamb
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Project Information


Historically, livestock production has been an unsustainable facet of our agricultural system. We are now recognizing the power of grazing and pasture to store carbon and feed populations and economically benefit farmers. Cattle are the top agricultural commodity in Oregon, the majority of these operations are in the southeastern part of the state. One specific challenge facing producers in this region is the lack of winter forage. This shortage leads ranchers to confinement feed their animals over the winter.Fodder beets are being successfully used to pasture livestock in New Zealand; the low cost, high yield and high metabolic energy of this crop allow for high stocking densities and indicate great promise for the economic advancement of rural farmers. Fodder beets have also introduced a new avenue through which young people in New Zealand are becoming farmers. In this project, we attempted to measure the economic viability of wintering cattle on fodder beet forage as compared to feedlot systems. This was accomplished by instituting a 40-acre trial of fodder beet forage for winter grazing of approximately 142 cattle in Burns, OR.

In this project the fodder beet forage dry matter yield was 6t/acre. This is almost 3 times less than the potential of the crop. The low yield was specifically caused by the low fertilizer application, poor soil conditions and difficulty of uneven distribution of water. Another major setback was the low gain of the calves in the first half of the grazing period. This was mainly due to low alfalfa hay allocation to the calves. However, we corrected this problem by increasing the alfalfa hay in their diet after consulting a few ruminant nutritionists. Overall, the the cost of gain for the cattle that grazed fodder beets was $3.50 per lb and the the calves in feedlot diet had a cost of gain at 0.94 cents. 

Under ideal growing and agronomic conditions, fodder beet has potential to provide over 15t/acre forage dry matter yield potential. It is highly suitable for cattle grazing even under harsh winter conditions.  I think this method of feeding cattle has great potential and will no doubt be a popular model of cattle feeding in the future.




Project Objectives:

1. Quantify the efficacy of winter grazing on fodder beets as compared to feedlot wintering
based on cost.
2. Actively share results with local extension agents, ranchers, farmers, industry
organizations and private consultants during the trial and after the data has been collected
and analyzed.


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Materials and methods:

In this project, we have evaluated the possibility of using fodder beet as fall/winter forage in a grazing systems between May 3, 2018 and June 30, 2019 in the High desert of Oregon. The farm is located near Burns Oregon. Seeds of fodder beets were precision planted at 22 inch rows and 4.5 inches between seeds in row in May 2018. The crop was fertilized before planting then again mid season. Approximately, 100 lbs/ac of urea at planting and another 200 lbs/ac urea both in the form of 46-0-0 was applied. Irrigation was applied through the growing season. On October 13th we determined the dry matter forage yield  to calculate the carrying capacity and stocking density. This was done with weighing the beets fresh and submitting feed samples to dairy one, Ithaca New York. After obtaining the dry matter content of the samples, we determined our dry matter crop yield.

Fall grazing started on October 29, 2018 with 142 calves and ran through January 25th 2019. We started the calves on a mostly hay diet and transitioned them to a mostly beet diet over the course of a couple weeks. By day 15, they had more beets than they could eat and by day 29, I was feeding only 3 lbs. of hay per calf. It is very important to slowly increase the beet intake for the cattle so they do not get acidosis. Half way through the experiment the calves had gained zero weight. After consulting with a nutritionist we switched from hay to alfalfa and increased the allotment from 3lbs to 5lbs of supplement alfalfa. With the very cold temperatures the beet tops had frozen off which resulted with lower than optimum protein levels. The cattle also needed more roughage in their diet to help keep them warm.

The beets were strip grazed with movable electric fence. The amount of beet offered to the cattle was carefully measured and the fence was moved each day in accordance with the prescribed beet amounts. Calves were weighed at the beginning, midway thorough and at the end of the grazing season. 



Research results and discussion:

The forage DM was 6 tons of dry matter per acre.While we were hoping for a higher yield, it's important to note this was a very high yield for competing crops in this region. The lower yields than anticipated were due to various agronomic shortcomings:

  1. Soil type: The ground was newly broken in outta sage brush and water infiltration was poor. This caused uneven distribution of water: In some areas the beets did not receive enough water while in some areas, the plants either were killed or stunted due to waterlogging.
  2. Weeds were an issue with this project. Proper control of weeds is very important for growing a successful beet crop. Many traditional herbicides used on beets are no longer in use because of the of roundup ready sugar beets. Beet farmers use roundup to control weeds in sugar beets. Fodder beets are not roundup ready. 
  3. Fertility was an issue, the full cost of fertilizer was outside the budget of this experiment.  Therefore the amount of fertilizer was applied did not meet the crop requirement to obtain the full production potential.

The nutritive value of the fodder beet was:





As Fed


As Fed


% Dry Matter





% Crude Protein




















NEG Mcal/Lb





% Calcium










% Magnesium










Calves were weighed on the truck before arrival to the beet field. Their starting weight was 552lbs. On Day 42 we weighed the calves and determined that the calves had lost 7lbs of weight. They arrived at a weight of 552lbs and our weight showed 545lbs. After talking with several experts, we we decided to up their dry hay allotment to 5lbs per calf per day and switch to straight alfalfa. We weighed them again on January 12th and they had reached a weight of 596lbs. this was an increase of 44lbs over 35 days. 

Our final weight was taken on January 25th, with the calves that grazed fodder beets gaining 70lbs and our control group fed on hay and corn gaining 163lbs. The cost of gain for the cattle that grazed fodder beet was $3.50 per lb and the control group had a cost of gain at 0.94 cents.

The cost of beets was $126.84 per ton.

As a comparison for our control, corn cost $200 per ton and our hay was $135 per ton.

The cost of beets per acre was roughly $800.00/acre

Just a note on the outcomes of this project. With proper farming, we could have achieved greater yields, lowering the cost of the beets and increasing the number of calves grazed. If we had used alfalfa hay at 5lbs from the start they would have gained the whole time, greatly increasing the profit and lowering the cost of gain on this project. I think this method of feeding cattle has great potential and will no doubt be a popular model of cattle feeding in the future.

Participation Summary
2 Producers participating in research

Research Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project

Education and Outreach

3 On-farm demonstrations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Tours
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

75 Farmers participated
6 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

three farmer and seed company groups came out for an onsite farm tour.

June 27 we gave a lecture on fodder beet production at Oregon State University for the Oregon Forage and Grassland council's "Range Field Day".

Education and Outreach Outcomes

10 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project
Key changes:
  • Farmers would now understand crop yields, growth rates on cattle and per acre costs of this crop. Also in the final report we will provide guidelines for break feeding and quantity of alfalfa supplement.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.