The World’s Greatest Forage Crop

What is the greatest yielding fodder crop in the world? By fodder crop, I mean that it’s a crop grown for livestock and us farmers quantify the yield in dry matter (DM) per ha. So it’s the real yield as opposed to some vegetable crops that give huge yields, but the product is 90 to 95% water.  Maize would have been the first crop that came to my mind. 

5 or 10 years ago we started hearing about New Zealand farmers growing fodder beet. Fodder beet is basically a different variety of sugar beet thats been selected for it’s nutritional value to cattle The yields of dry matter (DM) they were achieving were way more than any crop I had ever heard of. We consider 20 tons of DM per ha an exceptional yield of maize silage. Supposedly there were Kiwi farmers achieving over 35 tons DM per ha. The success of Fodder beet in New Zealand is shown by the dramatic increase in plantings of a few hundred hectares in the mid 2000’s to a  estimated 40 000 hectares today. They must be on to something! Other than the extremely high yield of DM it produces, it has several other advantages. It can be grazed, it has a good keeping quality, it is extremely high quality feed, and it’s relatively disease resistant.

For the last few years some guys have tried the stuff out in this country but I hadn’t heard of any success stories untill a farmer in the southern cape planted a few hectares last year. I didn’t hear what their final yields were exactly, but they were very promising. I had tried and failed with it a few years before.  I just couldn’t get the stuff to germinate properly and then the weeds just went crazy and took over. 

This year I decided to give it another crack. I’ve always loved experimenting and the local dairy farmers know this farm as the demo farm. Getting this fodder beet right was going to be a great challenge. I decided to try and establish the crop by seedling, rather than seed. In this way I could guarantee my germination and the beets would get a head start over the weeds. I would also have the opportunity to use  pre-emergent herbicide to stop weeds from germinating.  Planting by seedlings is very expensive, but I figured  that if I can guarantee my result, then it will still be cheap feed in the long term. I also planted some seed by hand which is the closest I could get to a precision planter. I now had a side by side comparison of which would be better. 

To put it mildly, I am very very excited about this stuff. The crop still has 3 to 4 months to go before grazing or harvest but the results so far are staggering. I will be documenting the seedling planted stuff as that’s the most impressive at this stage. The seeded stuff was OK, but a bit patchy.

Costings

  • 55 000 plants per ha @27c per plant (I will bring that down to 35 000 next year):  R 15 000 per ha
  • Labour for planting: R 3000 
  • Labour for weeding: R3000
  • Sprays: R1000
  • Fertilizer: R6000
  • Land prep and tractor costs: R2000
  • Irrigation R 3000
  • Total is R33 000 per ha.

That’s an expensive crop in anyone’s books, unless of course you can make you a lot of money off  that hectare.

I will update this post every month or so, charting the progress as I go. Yes this is counting chickens before they hatch, and my crop is still 3 months away from harvest. However I genuinely believe that like in New Zealand, Fodder beet will become one of the most important fodder crops in this country. I see no reason why it shouldn’t become an integral part of every forage production system. It’s a lot of work to grow the stuff, but it’s innovations like these that provide massive leaps in productivity to those farmers who successfully adopt them. In dairy pasture production there seems to be a ceiling at around about 17 to 18 tons of pasture consumed per ha. The successful integration of Fodder beet into a dairy production system threatens to shatter that ceiling. Here’s to the future and shattering ceilings!

Here follows my time table

Planted in the Nursary: 10th November 

Pre-plant Fertilizer of 300kg MAP worked into soil.

Planted out in the Field: 17th December 

Pre-emergent herbicide Claw used post planting.

10th January: Hand weeding 

3rd January:  Top dressing of 50 kgs urea+ 50 kg amonium sulphate + 10 kg solubor / ha.

5th February : top dressing of 100 kg amonium sulphate  per ha.

First pulling: 3rd February: 1.48 kg per plant @ 55 000 plants per ha is 81 tons wet matter per ha .  Tested DM at exactly 10% so yield is 8.1 t DM  per ha.

2nd pulling: 8th February: 1.78 kg per plant X 55 000 is 98 ton wet matter or 9.8 tons DM per ha.

3rd pulling: 16th February: 2.7kg per plant = 148 tons wet matter or 14.8 ton DM per ha. 

The DM % increases in the latter stages of the crop. This crop still has 3 to 4 months to go before it’s fully nature. It’s apparently a 210 day crop. It’s 100 days old now and I find it hard to believe that it will carry on growing for another 110 days. Maybe with additional heat units in South Africa it will reach maturity quicker? Consider that on Christmas day that there was effectively no food there  just tiny seedlings. In the 50 days since Christmas it’s grown 15 tons of feed. That’s a growth rate of about 1 ton DM every 3 days. If it does carries on growing at the current rate for as long as they say it will grow then it will reach a rediculously high yield. I find that difficult to believe, so I reckon it will be a much quicker maturing crop due to the extra heat units here.  

Here follow some pics of the progression of the crop, and please remember that all farmers are biased in their measurements of their crops. I try hard to get the measurements right bit I am still a farmer.

The little seedlings getting going on Christmas day.
14th January
27th January
3rd February
3rd February. Olli getting lost in the Beets.
14th Fenruary: An explosion in growth! Each plant now us almost the same size as Olli.
The difference in size of plants that I pulled on the 17th February (left) and those I pulled on the 3rd February. That is a freakishly big difference in just 2 weeks. Those on the left weighed 2.7 kg and those on the right weighed 1.5 kg.
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