Quality warning over using sugar beet as feed

Ruminant livestock producers taking advantage of cheap whole sugar beet prices must be careful about feeding quality, warn experts.

Following Britain's freeze-thaw winter, thousands of tonnes of sugar beet were deemed unusable by British Sugar, but some of the beet could be incorporated into ruminant rations at an attractive price.

KW Trident Feeds reported that its was lifting beet directly from fields in Lincolnshire and delivering to livestock farmers in the midlands at about £24/t - a price that makes the product worth £100/t of dry matter or the equivalent of having wheat at £87/t.

According to nutritionist Melanie White, sugar beet can be used as a partial replacer for costly cereals with the crop not only high in energy, but also offering a high-fibre source.

However, KW Trident technical manager, Michael Marsden, says the window of opportunity for livestock farmers could be small, depending on forthcoming weather conditions.

"If we have an extended cold snap, frost damaged beet could last longer, however if temperatures increase, the crop will deteriorate quicker.

"There is also a finite volume of the crop available - we're already discovering some fields are unusable. We will be continuously monitoring the crop to see that it is still safe to feed."

Extensive frost damage will speed up the deterioration process, so he advises livestock farmers to feed the crop within seven to 10 days after lifting to ensure the quality of the crop is a good enough for feeding.

"Areas of the beet damaged by the frost will start to break down and go mushy. When these mushy areas show any signs of mould they should be discarded and not fed.

"Farmers need to be responsible and keep a close eye on spoilage to check the crop has not deteriorated too much," he says.

And rotting or soiled bulbs could create animal health problems, says vet Richard Vecqueray, Evidence Based Vet Consultancy.

"Sugar beet is a great feed when bulbs are clean and the tops are removed. However, soil contamination can bring listeriosis risk, potentially causing abortion and gut upset.

"The tops and leaves also contain a higher concentration of haemolytic saponins, which can destroy red blood cells when fed in excess.

"Frost damage can also cause the crop to spoil quickly, which can upset rumen function and result in diarrhoea."

Mr Vecqueray advises when there is any question over the feed being spoilt, it should be fed with caution, particularly with high-yielding dairy cows, which will be less tolerant.

"Cows love sugar beet so including it in the ration will boost dry matter intakes. But this comes with its pros and cons - cows will always sort out sugar beet from the ration so it must be mixed well in a TMR."

Beef producers tight on feed could feed beet on its own to finishing cattle, possibly with a proportion of cereal, says Ms White. "However, growing cattle would need grass silage in addition to sugar beet."

And, as a high-energy, succulent feed, sugar beet roots are ideal for providing energy to pregnant ewes - particularly in the latter stages where there is risk of pregnancy toxaemia, says Dr Marsden.

"However, when feeding ewes it is essential that roots are broken or chopped to ensure uniform intakes and to minimise choking risk."

In fact, Dr Marsden recommends processing whole sugar beet when feeding to any ruminant.

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