As recently as a few generations ago, feeding root crops to dairy cattle was common practice on small scale family dairy farms in the north east. I remember as a kid seeing a strange looking cutting machine covered in dust in the silo room on our farm. I asked dad what it was and he said it was a root cutter. He said that they used to use it to cut up beets, potatoes, and carrots to the feed the cows years ago, before “cheap corn”. Turns out that most root crops have very similar energy to corn on a dry matter basis.
Later I would read the book Farmer Boy to my children and notice that Mr. Wilder’s evening routine included going to the cellar and cutting up root crops and pumpkins to feed the milk cows the next morning. This sparked more conversations with Dad and he told me of times when he was a kid, when his father would buy a truck load of potatoes to feed the cows and save on corn. These potatoes were part of some gov’t price fixing scheme where they “purchased” potatoes from farmers to help prop up the market price. The potatoes were dyed so that they couldn’t make it into stores but could be sold to livestock farmers. At least that’s what he told me. Back then dad’s job would be to cut up the taters with a spud because they didn’t have a fancy cutter like we had gathering dust in the silo room. Root crops must be cut up so the cows don’t choke on them. You’ve probably heard Corb Lund’s song, Talkin’ Veterinarian Blues, where he mentions a beef cow with “sugar beet choke”. It’s a thing, so you need to be sure to cut them up. Anyhow, until very recently it was quite common to use root crops as a supplement in cattle rations.
What root crops did people traditionally feed cattle?
People have fed beets, mangles, carrots, potatoes, and turnips to cattle. All of these crops are fairly easy to grow, store easily, and provide nutrition to cattle. While you don’t necessarily want to totally replace grains like corn with them, they can help to significantly cut back on them. As an interesting side note, many of the old livestock feed varieties of carrots are actually white fleshed varieties. Old seed catalogs had many “fodder” varieties that were primarily grown for animal feed.
How do these crops compare to corn?
Here are two examples, carrots and potatoes…
Carrots have 91% the metabolizable energy value of corn, on a DM basis
For potatoes, it takes 400-450 pounds of potatoes to equal 100 pounds of corn on an energy basis. Or to look at it another way, 100 pounds of raw potatoes equals 21 pounds of corn, 67 pounds of corn silage or 31 pounds of alfalfa.
You must keep in mind that roots have a lot more moisture than dry shell corn. It will take more pounds of root crops than dried grains to get the same nutrition.
What kind of yields do these crops produce?
According to a 1957 USDA document on feeding root crops to livestock, the following yields for root crops are common…
“Under favorable conditions, such as in the Pacific northwest,
mangels, rutabagas, and turnips yield 20 to 40 tons per acre. Carrots
under similar conditions produce about half this amount. In the
northern Great Plains where the moisture supply is limited, mangels,
rutabagas, and turnips yield 5 to 10 tons per acre and carrots 2 to 4
tons per acre.”
What does this mean for the average smallholder with a few cows?
It is quite possible for folks to grow and store root crops to supplement cattle through the winter and save on purchased grain costs.
You will need a place to store root crops, such as a root cellar. Other options include trenches covered with mulch. The important thing is to keep them from freezing over the winter but not to have them too warm either. Proper storage may be one the biggest hurdles for the homesteader.
Most root crops when first harvested have a laxative effect on ruminates. This lessens the longer the crops are in storage. This should be taken into account when feeding.
Again it should be stressed that all these crops should be cut up before feeding to prevent the animal from choking.
As with any new feeding experiment, be cautious. Monitor body condition and production.