Critical eyes on winter fodder beet

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Recent New Zealand media footage of cows grazing beets udder deep in mud is drawing more attention towards degenerative farm practices. Dairy and beef industries are under increasing fire from multiple angles from greenhouse gas emissions to water quality concerns and humane animal treatments. This adds up to more fuel on the fire for an urban audience to reject beef and dairy products, who are increasingly asking is it responsible to drink milk and eat meat? Winter grazing of brassicas offers a visual low hanging fruit to feed the anti-livestock brigade. Sadly, in this case their criticism is justified. 

Grazing brassica in monocultures has impacts on bottom lines; environment, animals, profit and stress. Maintaining ‘clean’ crops increases the need for chemical and fertilizer use. These monocultures reduce biodiversity above and below-ground, with negative effects on soil health and water quality. 

Grazing brassicas puts farmers on a chemical treadmill with declining returns impacting the environment and livestock wellbeing.

As the table insert shows these winter crops involve significant inputs to maintain.

Dairy NZ standard practice recommends the following to grow and maintain Fodder Beet. Recommendations which include 10 -14 tractor passes as per the typical fodder beet program below which costs $2600 NZ/ha to produce 5- 18 tonnes DM/ha.

 Typical fodder beet program: 
1 -2 Glyphosate or glyphosate x 2 + insecticide if direct drilling
2 -5Plough, cultivate to achieve weed free A-grade seed bed
6Fertiliser: up to 500 kg Urea + 150 kg salt
Drill or broadcast seed
8 – 12Selective herbicides x 3 – 6, Insecticides x 2 – 3
13 – 14Fertiliser N every 4 – 6 weeks

These figures for fodder beet do not include the unintended costs such as soil losses, lost soil microbiology, animal health costs, increased GHG emissions and costs to clean-up waterways.

Is there another way?

Regenerative practices focus on building soil thereby, increasing biodiversity, optimising animal health, restoring the integrity of waterways and decreasing inputs and costs to achieve increased profit per hectare. 

Multi species cover crop = 3 tractor passes costs $400 – $700 NZ/ha to produce up to 15 tonnes DM/ha

 Regenenerative Multi-species cover crop program:
Glyphosate – half label rates + 1 l/ha fulvic acid.   $60
2Direct drill – kale, vetch, triticale, winter rye, radish, beans, winter peas, clovers etc  $250 – $350
3Liquid or solid fertiliser based on test results  $100 – $300

Comparing the inputs to produce a diverse multi-species crops shows it is clearly cheaper to establish and maintain a regenerative crop. These costs do not include the capital benefits of building a resilient, healthy soil microbiome. 

Brassicas are non-mycorrhizal; meaning they do not have a relationship with one of the most essential soil building microbes with negative implications for building humus. They thrive in a disturbed environment with low competition from other plants and with high soil P levels. 

Maintaining 100% fodder beet results in large areas of bare ground between stalks. Regional council staff have measured as much as 50 tons of topsoil per hectare per year being lost from winter grazing brassicas. (5 mm of topsoil = 50 m3 of topsoil per hectare.) Councils are aware of the issues are providing farmers with nets to capture the soil before it enters waterways. This Band-Aid mentality is undermining the entire New Zealand farming and tourism industry.

Regenerative agriculture places an emphasis on humane animal treatment. Animals standing or lying in the mud does no good for anyone, including the farmer and least of all the animal. 

Focussing on year-round diverse groundcover, optimising nutrient density and elevating animal welfare is essential for bottom-lines, long term productivity and New Zealand’s “Clean, Green” image.

Talk to an Integrity Soils specialist today about how you too can produce crops to feed animals for improved animal health and profitably, knowing you are part of the solution, not part of the problem.