Fodder beet gets the tick

A dissertation by Lincoln University agricultural science honours student Zivana Katelyn King has found fodder beet an environmentally efficient and cost effective feed. The findings have been welcomed by Canterbury sheep and beef farmers, the Fisher family. Sandra Taylor reports.

In Crops and Forage11 Minutes

A dissertation by Lincoln University agricultural science honours student Zivana Katelyn King has found fodder beet an environmentally efficient and cost effective feed. The findings have been welcomed by Canterbury sheep and beef farmers, the Fisher family. Sandra Taylor reports.

A dissertation by a Lincoln University’s agricultural science honours student has shown that high density beef wintering systems (fodder beet and pasture) are the most resource efficient with the lowest methane and nitrogen losses.

The study by Zivana Katelyn King concluded that days to slaughter had the most overwhelming influence on resource use and methane and nitrogen (N) outputs.

The dissertation assessed drymatter and metabolisable energy (ME) intake, methane production, N intake and excretion, water intake and the direct cost of feed of seven different beef finishing systems. These were: 28-month pasture, 25-month fodder beet, 25-month kale, 16-month pasture, 16-month fodder beet, a New Zealand feedlot and a United States feedlot.

The highest use of ME, the greatest methane and N output was associated with maximum days to slaughter, which was the 28-month pasture system. This was followed closely by the 25-month kale system which had similar values except for ME.

The most efficient system was the US feedlot. Meanwhile, the best ranked NZ systems were the 16-month pasture and fodder beet systems, but the pasture system had considerably higher methane outputs when compared to the fodder beet system.

Comparing the 25-month forage systems, the beet system had considerably lower methane and N outputs than the kale. The highest water intake occurred in the 25-month kale system closely followed by the 28-month grass system. The US feedlot had the lowest water intake.

Comparing feed costs

However, looking at direct feed costs (per kg CWT) the US feedlot was the most expensive followed by the NZ feedlot, the 28-month pasture, 25-month kale, 16-month grass, 25-month fodder beet and 16-month fodder beet.

It was the systems that focused on increasing cool season energy intake in young stock accelerated finishing and achieved far better environmental outcomes, although fodder beet was found to be much more resource efficient forage than kale.

The study argues that the critical time to alter stock slaughter age in spring born cattle is the first autumn and winter. Low mid-spring liveweights tend to prevent forage-fed cattle achieving slaughter weights before their second winter and that is the pivot point for increased resource use, methane and N output.

The good news for farmers is that the most efficient systems were also found to be the least expensive.

In the report’s conclusion, it states that the fodder beet system had the lowest methane and N excretion values reported in forage feeding systems for beef anywhere in the world, and this should be a good- news that warrants wider community attention.

“Given that recent history has shown the trend for consumers to include environmental impact in purchase decisions around food, this information should be extended widely to the beef industry to equip farmers to meet the future community expectations for beef.”

However, NZ farmers face a conundrum. That’s because the most resource efficient, fast-finishing system is also the one that has stock grazing winter pasture or crop at high stocking rates (the 16-month pasture and 16- month fodder beet). These systems have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years from regulators and the wider public.

The study also calls on processors to reward early slaughter with either premiums on carcase-weight or preferential access to killing floor space.

“The value would be recovered with marketing the fast-finished beef with appropriate labelling and both the initiative and practice could be leveraged by the processors for the good of the broader industry.

Low carbon beef producers should be rewarded

When the Climate Change Commission released its report calling for the primary sector to either reduce its emissions or cut livestock numbers by 15 percent, the Fisher family were, in some ways, pleased.

They saw this as the shot in the arm the beef industry needed to improve resource-use efficiencies and encourage the whole beef supply chain to look at ways it can become more productive and profitable.

The Greenpark sheep and beef farmers have been calling for change in the way beef is produced in this country for many years, but recent environmental regulations and a Lincoln University student’s Honours dissertation has provided grist to their mill.

This dissertation, which compared seven beef finishing systems in NZ, looked at how resource use efficiency, methane and nitrogen output differ. It found that there was opportunity for beef producers to cut methane production by about 50% simply by improving their production efficiencies.

Fast finishing is at the crux of these production efficiencies and as Anna Fisher puts it, “the longer animals are alive the more methane they produce”.

“By far the majority of what a beef animal eats goes purely into maintenance.

“Getting the quantity of high ME feed into the animal is the key to fast-finishing.”

Anna, her husband Brent and Brent’s parents Barry and Maureen farm 1100ha running between Greenpark and Motukarara in Central Canterbury. Their property is a 50:50 split between hill country and flats which flank the environmentally fragile Lake Ellesmere.
As well as running the Silverstream Charolais stud, they run 1100 ewes and finish 800 trading cattle on a fodder beet and pasture system every year.

This frustration in the inefficiencies of this country’s beef systems stems back over 20 years when they entered a bull into the Canadian Charolais Conception to Consumer progeny test programme.

Looking at Canadian systems, they saw beef cattle finished at 12 months at 300kg CW and this was the catalyst for Brent to start questioning why NZ producers couldn’t be finishing beef much earlier than the typical two years-plus.

While he admits Canadian feedlot cut-and-carry finishing systems are very different to NZ’s grass-based farming, there was still huge potential for the industry to do better.

“We know the cattle have the genetic capability to do it, it’s just getting the management in place to help realise it.

“If you look at the sheep industry over the last 30 years, there have been huge gains in terms of productivity.

“Generally speaking, there haven’t been the same gains in cattle and often they are only thought of as pasture groomers for more productive sheep.”

Brent says while there is no one silver bullet, there are a number of small factors that could add up to significant gains across the industry.

“We have extremely good technologies for recording.

“From our experience, the more we learn the more we realise just how much more there is to learn.”

In their own system, they use fodder beet to grow cattle over winter and set the yearlings up so they can make the most efficient and effective use of spring pasture to drive growth rates.

Brent says years of records have highlighted that on average, they grew 50% of an animal’s potential growth in the spring period.

Their top lines are sent away in December and the family has the bulk of their cattle ready for processing over summer and autumn. This coincides with the cull dairy cow kill, when processors are disincentivising beef producers for having animals ready at this time.

“It makes perfect sense from the processing industries point of view as cull dairy cows are cheap and readily available, but it does little to help the beef industry.

“It just helps encourage the inefficiencies which have constrained the industry.”

He says he would like the processors to think about the whole supply chain as if it was their own, particularly the cooperatives, as their existence relies on farmers staying in business.

If it was any other industry, they wouldn’t tolerate inefficiencies in any one part of it.

“If we don’t address these issues, we will continue to see beef cow country lost forever to trees.”

Brent would also like to see producers being rewarded for producing beef with a low carbon footprint and he says banks have signalled that in the future, carbon footprint will be included in lending criteria.

But the family also believes improved production efficiencies are a huge market opportunity for NZ to produce and market beef with a low carbon footprint.