The area of irrigated fodder beet has grown steadily in Australia across the past decade but Lochaber farmer Michael Rosmann sees big potential for dryland use too.
He believes it can transform large areas of unproductive, salty, seasonal swamps in the South East during the spring-summer months to produce quality livestock feed.
After cutting just 30 large round rolls of hay (about 300 kilograms each) of Tetila annual ryegrass from 19 hectares in 2017, Mr Rosmann was looking for an alternative for the paddock that goes underwater each winter and is highly saline.
During his online research he came across fodder beet, which can produce up to 30 tonnes/ha of dry matter in only 180 days, but importantly is salt tolerant.
"The best it (the paddock) can grow is tall wheat grass that is of little feed value, only a bit of roughage," he said.
"From feeding 25kg an animal a day, the liveweight gains they are talking about with beet are 2kg/hd/day, that is up there with feedlot gains."
In mid-October last year he sowed a 1ha trial of Summo, a Cropmark Seeds variety, and has just supplementary fed the bulb and leaves out to his cattle.
Mr Rosmann says it established well despite a very dry summer, with only about 40 millimetres of rainfall in October and 40mm in December, drawing moisture from the shallow water table. It was on-track for strong yields but in February it was attacked by crickets, which then led to a soil-borne fusarium fungi.
Undeterred, he plans to grow 5ha this spring of a different Cropmark variety, Geronimo, and has already deep ripped 5ha to get the beet roots down quicker.
"I should be able to get around 1000t, which should be enough to feedlot about 300 head of cattle."
Cropmark Seeds SA, western Vic and Tas sales agronomist Bruce Hume says it is the first dryland crop he has seen grown in Australia, but also sees its potential.
"It requires salt to grow so it loves the conditions here," he said. "Normally we add up to 150kg/ha of salt (to the crop) so that is a saving we don't need."
Fodder beet is commonly strip grazed by livestock in the paddock but Mr Hume says the "cut and carry" approach will work best, enabling the crop to be moved off before the winter months.
"It is not a case of needing to use it or lose it - the bulbs will store for three months without losing quality," he said.
Mr Hume says fodder beet, which has 10-12 megajoules of metabolisable energy/kg dry matter, can be a "cheap feed".
"The establishment cost was $2100/ha (including seed, fertiliser and weed sprays) in Michael's case but can be up to $3500/ha if relying on a contractor to do it all," he said. "If we can get up to 30t (a hectare) of dry matter it works out about 10c/kg DM."
He foresees the biggest obstacle could be a lack of machinery in the area to mechanically pull out the beets.
But in New Zealand, where tens of thousands of hectares of beet are grown, there are many six-row pickers. One of these could be imported by a SE contractor, he said.
PRECISION PLANNING NEEDED FOR FODDER BEET
Good establishment is key to growing fodder beet, according to Cropmark Seeds' agronomist Bruce Hume.
He says it is important to sow into a weed-free paddock when soil temperatures have risen above 10 degrees.
A precision planter should be used to space plants evenly with rows about 50 centimetres apart.
The crop should be sown at 100,000 seeds a hectare at a sowing depth of no more than 1.5cm.
Mr Hume says it is critical in the first few weeks to check crops regularly for pests and disease but once it is established, fodder beet is more tolerant to insects than leafy brassica crops.
It can be fed to both sheep and cattle but should be introduced slowly to prevent acidosis and make up no more than 70 per cent of the ration.