A key aspect of the Monitor Farm programme is finding ways to improve efficiency and reduce costs and Peter Eccles at Saughland Farm in Midlothian is delighted that establishing a fodder beet crop to feed his 2,000 ewe flock has done just that.
The Lothians Monitor farm is a partnership between neighbouring farms; the 330-hectare livestock unit of Saughland, managed by Mr Eccles and the arable farm, Prestonhall, managed by Bill Gray.
It is one of nine monitor farms established in Scotland as part of a joint initiative by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) and AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds with funding from the Scottish Government. The aim of the monitor farm programme is to help improve the productivity, profitability and sustainability of Scottish farm businesses.
Now into his final year of the programme, Mr Eccles has already made significant improvements at Saughland. The rotational grazing system he introduced has resulted in an increase in stocking numbers and ewe productivity has been improved in an outdoor lambing system by using Aberfield and Romney genetics.
Always open to new ideas, he was intrigued to see if fodder beet could be used to keep the nutrition right in his ewes over the winter. Inspired by former monitor farmer, John Scott, who had established a fodder beet crop on Fearn farm in Tain, and with the support of the monitor farm community group and facilitators, Mr Eccles decided to grow 6.5 hectares of fodder beet at Saughland last year.
The cost benefits have been considerable. He said: “Fodder beet was expensive to establish at over £650 per hectare, but the yield of over 100 tonnes per hectare fresh weight and 20 tonnes dry matter meant it cost 3.25p per kg dry matter to produce compared to feed barley at 20p per kg DM.”
If he had fed homegrown silage in place of fodder beet on the same area of land, Mr Eccles calculated that, on a dry mater basis, he would have to needed to produce approximately 71 bales per hectare of 35 per cent DM silage, something that would be challenging for any farm to produce.
Mr Eccles accepts that the weather has been on his side, as the dry winter made it relatively easy to lift half the crop while the ewes grazed the rest in great conditions. However, he believes that as long as he sows it on fairly free draining land and offers the sheep a run back, there should not be too many problems with mud in a wetter year.
He said: “We lifted about a third of the crop before Christmas and stacked it outdoors surrounded by straw bales. It kept very well for seven weeks and we used it to feed batches of ewes in fields.
Around 1,000 ewes strip-grazed the remainder from the second week in January with an allocation of one kg of dry matter per day and with continual access to good silage. Mr Eccles kept 300 twin ewes grazing the fodder beet in March but put the rest of the flock onto rotational grass to make use of the early growth this year.
He commented: “We have found the fodder beet a great, inexpensive source of energy, ideal for filling the nutrition gap in January and February. It has really put condition on the ewes with little waste; utilisation of the crop has been 90 per cent.”
Fodder beet has a very deep tap root; about twice the size of a turnip, with twice as much dry matter. The sheep ate down to the last third to quarter of the tuber then a grubber was used to pull the remainder to the surface for the ewes to polish off. Mr Eccles said: “They seem to absolutely love it and so far we have had no broken mouth problems although it is something we will keep an eye on.”
Mr Eccles is aware that fodder beet requires careful management when being fed to pregnant ewes. He said: “Although a great source of energy, fodder beet alone is too low in protein to meet the ewes’ requirements in the final month of pregnancy. I have arranged for the twin bearing ewes to be blood sampled to check their energy and protein levels and have a couple of options to top up their nutrition if required.
“Ewes requiring extra nutrition can either be fed high quality grass silage (11.3ME and 14.8 per cent Crude Protein) and some soya ewe rolls. Or we could rotate the ewes through the lambing paddocks and utilise the flush of grass we have this year. We don’t start lambing until mid-April so by then I hope feed demand is matched entirely by grass growth.”
Last year, two varieties of beet, were grown at Saughland; ‘’Blaze’’, which has a bigger root and sits higher in the ground making it ideal for grazing, while ‘’Blizzard’’ was deeper rooting with about 70% of the tuber underground and therefore better for harvesting.
Mr Eccles found that there were advantages to both and would definitely grow two varieties again. He said: “Having had problems establishing turnips in the past due to weed and pest control problems, fodder beet was easier to manage and the yield was outstanding.”
The other advantage of fodder beet is that, sown in the rotation after a forage crop such as kale, it provides a good entry for a five-year grass ley.
Mr Eccles is delighted with the way the ewes have performed through the winter on the fodder beet and plans to increase the area to about nine hectares this year split across two fields to make access easier. He is also considering feeding it to some of his cattle youngstock. Although he acknowledges that the true test will come in a wet year but, for the moment, Mr Eccles cannot see anything better for winter fodder at Saughland.
For more information about the monitor farm programme visit www.monitorfarms.co.uk