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Fodder beet can be a ''game-changer'' for beef farmers.
Lincoln University senior lecturer Dr Jim Gibbs said it was the perfect crop to fill ''a feed gap'' to allow farmers to make money from their beef cattle.
''You only make money by doing it well,'' Dr Gibbs told farmers at Beef and Lamb New Zealand's annual science seminar at Lincoln University earlier this month. ''I work on 70 project farms, mainly in the South Island, and when I see the landscape I think: `How could red meat not win in New Zealand?' It should be winning, but the reality is it's not.''
Dr Gibbs said steers were receiving the same dollar value at the works they were receiving 10-15 years ago and beef cow numbers had declined since 2000.
The average New Zealand steer was 26-36 months old when it went to the works, compared to 12-16 months for prime beef in Europe and the United States.
The problem was that seasonal grass growth did not tie in with a cow or steer's feed requirements, creating ''a feed gap''. Other feed supplements, including grain, lucerne bales, grass silage, hay, straw, kale and swedes, were not always cost-effective and cattle were not getting the metabolic energy they needed.
However, Dr Gibbs said fodder beet provided a low-cost, high-yield alternative. Fodder beet had been available in New Zealand since the 19th century but there had been a perception the leaves were toxic, so it was fed only in small amounts and often without the leaves, he said.
Research funded by DairyNZ showed fodder beet had benefits as a winter crop with high metabolic energy, as long as it was properly managed, as the crop could be acidic, he said. '
'We discovered you could feed cows as much feed as they could eat every day. It showed you could make a really cheap winter feed, but transition is important.''
Cows could be eased on to fodder beet by increasing their intake by 1kg every two days until it reached 8-10kg a day. The same applied to steers and fodder beet could be grown and fed out all year round, he said.
Fodder beet trials were also conducted by Banks Peninsula farmer Brent Fisher and five of his neighbours last year, with 20 steers fed the crop ad lib during summer, autumn and winter.
The steers went to the works in December at 14-15 months old for an average carcass weight of 270kg, compared to 2-year-old steers with carcass weights of 270-320kg.
''Fodder beet is not only producing big carcass weights per hectare but also producing a white fat and a lot of marbling.''
Dryland farms could expect a yield of 20 tonnes a hectare, while irrigated properties could produce more than 30 tonnes and up to 40 tonnes.
''No matter where you go, you always get three months of good grass. So work out how many cows you can carry through that period and then work out how much fodder beet you need to get through until the grass is available again.''