Farmer Feeds Sugarbeets, Looks to Grow Industry

Published online: Dec 05, 2017 News
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Source: The Country Today

Dan Rine, a potato grower near Antigo, Wis., started growing sugarbeets eight years ago when representatives from two large dairies in eastern Wisconsin approached him about the crop. They were looking for an alternative to corn, which at the time was high-priced. Since then, corn prices have dropped—along with the popularity of sugarbeets as feed—but Rine is looking to help them make a comeback.

“When we first tried (growing sugarbeets), corn prices were up at $7 a bushel, so beets looked like a really good deal,” Rine says. “Since then, with the corn price being so low, (farmers) have stuck with corn because everyone knows how to use corn.”

Sugarbeets contain up to 25 percent slow-release sugar, providing cattle with energy and helping improve feed efficiency. They also are highly palatable, so they are not hard to feed. Many dairies that have used beets in their feed have seen jumps in milk production and high breeding rates, Rine says.

Tom Greshner, a dairy farmer near Owen, Wis., has been feeding sugarbeets off and on for several years and says he has seen both benefits with his herd.

“I would get a processed load from the Dakotas that had some of the sugar taken out of it. The cows jumped in milk production by 5 to 8 pounds,” Greshner says. He says he hasn’t seen that response this time around feeding Rine’s beets, but attributes that to some other feed quality issues he is battling on his farm. “I did see a tremendous increase in getting cows bred. They were coming in heat all over the place.”

Greshner says the cows visibly like the sugarbeets, crunching away at the chunks as soon as they are dumped before them.

“Usually when I start the skid-steer, they will line right up,” Greshner says. “It is just like feeding them a candy bar.”

Sugarbeets take a few extra steps in processing in order to get them ready to feed to cattle. Rine digs the beets in October and runs them through a brusher and washer that remove any rocks and dirt. Greshner then gets a 15-ton load of the washed whole sugarbeets that he leaves in a pile until he is ready to feed. Using an old flail chopper, Greshner chops the beets into smaller pieces that the cows can eat more easily.

“I was trying to think of something cheap that I could use to process the beets and then one of my neighbors had an old flail chopper,” Greshner says. “Now I make a windrow with the skid-steer and drive over it with the flail chopper. Even if it cuts it to half a beet, the cows don’t care. They will gnaw and chew on it just like an apple.”

Other farmers have also gotten creative in processing their beets, using slinger spreaders to break up the beets or running over them with a tractor or skid-steer tire. Once the sugar beets are crushed up, they resemble a wet sawdust that will gradually turn a darker color the longer they sit.

Without a total mixed ration, Greshner approximates, with the help of a nutritionist, how much to feed his animals each day.

“We are shooting for 20 pounds per cow per day,” says Greshner, who plans to only feed the beets this year until the load is gone. “I would feed them all winter, but I didn’t want to commit to too much because I didn’t know how I was going to process them. I’ve already talked with Dan about feeding more next year. We will talk again in February when he is planning how much he will grow.”

According to Rine, growing sugarbeets is just as expensive as growing corn, with the seed comparably priced to corn seed. He says it is a hardy plant once it gets established, but grows much like corn in that it needs nitrogen and irrigation. Rine says he also sprays the sugarbeets like they do their potatoes to prevent them from getting blight.

Rine says he plans to continue to grow sugarbeets on a small scale, but he would like to get more dairies interested in the product so he could expand that part of his business.

“The very first year we grew them, there were three farms involved in it, and we had 170 acres of sugarbeets, which those two dairies used all up,” he says. “Then they didn’t want any more, so we really backed off. We are only growing 10 to 15 acres a year right now. If Tom wants to keep doing it, we will grow more to accommodate him, and hopefully word gets out that this could work for other farmers.”

One challenge with sugarbeets is they should be fed year-round, but they spoil quickly in the warmer months. To preserve them, sugarbeets need to be ensiled with drier silage to compensate for the excess moisture in the beets.

“The hardest part is they need to somehow get them blended in with their feed so they have them year-round instead of just a couple months,” says Rine. “That means that we would have to harvest them, wash and get the stones out, crush them and then we could haul the crushed sugarbeets to them. Then as they are pushing their corn silage up in the bunker, they would have to push a layer of sugar beets over the top and then push corn, layering the sugarbeets in the silage.”

The farmer would also need to harvest his corn silage at lower moisture to balance the beets’ moisture.

Rine says feeding sugarbeets is popular with dairies in Arizona, where studies have shown cows produce more milk and have better conditioning when fed sugarbeets.

“I know some farmers here have talked to people in Arizona and gone out and visited them,” says Rine. “They are using the beets year-round—but then again, they have a different growing season there and can have fresh beets year-round.”

In addition to the dairy industry, Rine sells his sugarbeets to deer hunters and has sold to an area hog farmer in the past.

“We had a guy that raised hogs, and he fed a lot of sugar beets. He said the hogs did very well on them, putting on good weight,” Rine says. “Pretty much any cattle will eat them. It is just that the price of corn is so low right now that farmers are having a hard time making the switch.”

Rine says the future of sugarbeets in the area really depends on the price of corn, but he hopes to get a few smaller farmers like Greshner using the beets and see where the industry goes from there.