(Editor’s Note: Tony De Groot, Sr., interviewed for the story below, passed away in a plane accident about two weeks after he was interviewed for this story. The story was briefly held from publication out of respect to the De Groot family. Mr. De Groot was 80 years old.
Western Farm Press offers its condolences to the De Groot family. Read more about Mr. De Groot's life and contributions at the conclusion of this article.)
Dairy cows are almost no different from humans: feed them some sugar and they’re happy.
Tony De Groot, Sr. fed feed beets to dairy cows in his native Holland as a child. After immigrating to the United States in the late 1950s, feed beets for his livestock took a back seat for a period of time to growing sugar beets for human uses. When the sugar beet industry in California died out with the sugar plants, Mr. De Groot decided to feed beets to his cows rather than over winter them. From that year on, he has continued to grow and feed beets for his cows.
Jack Griffin, a consultant working with Betaseed Feed Beets, is trying to help dairy producers and farmers understand the benefits of feed beets as a nutritional source for their livestock. Mr. De Groot is known to be the first and only producer of feed beets in California. He was the primary educator of feeding beets to the dairy industry.
There are a few more in Arizona growing feed beets for their dairy operations – a fact Griffin says points to room for growth.
Mr. De Groot began DG Bar Ranch near Hanford, Calif. in the early 1960s, several years after immigrating to the United States. Today that farm encompasses about 2,700 acres of land upon which the De Groot family grows corn and wheat for silage, about 600 acres of alfalfa and some feed beets. All are staples in the diet of De Groot’s milk herd, which numbers about 4,200 Holsteins across two dairies.
Mr. De Groot learned early on in his farming career that sugar beets, or feed beets as dairy producers refer to them, have a value in crop rotations. For dairy producers, they not only provide an excellent source of carbohydrates in a dairy cow’s total mixed ration (TMR); Beets do an effective job of balancing soil composition by using up valuable nitrates which come from dairy manure and lagoon water.
“The biggest thing is it cleans the ground,” said Mr. De Groot.
He told the story about working on a farm operation in his native Holland. They had about 20 cows in a barn. Manure was simply stacked up behind the barn. Feed beet seeds were then simply tossed on the pile, where they later germinated and grew into feed beets for the cows.
The beets grew well in the raw, unprocessed piles of manure, Mr. De Groot said. They fed those beets back to the cows after running them through a hand-powered grinder.
Technology has advanced since the days Mr. De Groot spun the beet grinder by hand in Holland. The dairies, which today are managed by Mr. De Groot’s son, Tony. Jr, and his grandson, Jared, now use a Knight Slinger to grind up and spit the large beets into a pit for storage. Juice from the pit is pumped to storage tanks, where it is then used in the mixed ration.
Duane Bernhardson, animal nutrition expert with Betaseed, says feed beets have several benefits for dairy producers and farmers.
From the animal health side, feed beets can be effectively substituted for a number of different rations in a total mixed ration. According to information from Betaseed, at least one Arizona dairy producer considerably cut the amount of rolled corn he feeds his cows because growing feed beets is less expensive.
Feed beets are also highly digestible – more so than corn. According to Bernhardson, feed beets are at least 90 percent digestible. This translates into more milk in the dairy cow and more meat on the hoof for the beef cow.
Brian Waymire, De Groot’s dairy herdsman, agrees. He’s seen milk production increase with the addition of feed beets.
Part of the reason for this is the cows will eat more of the mixed ration placed in front of them when feed beets are included. More feed intake typically translates into more milk production.
This is particularly important during the hot summer months when feed intake typically declines, Waymire says. The cows get about 20 pounds of feed beets per ration per day. The result in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley’s hot summer was 82 pounds of milk per Holstein cow. Cows are milked three times a day.
For the farmer, feed beets also have benefits.
Feed beets are much more drought tolerant than corn, according to Griffin. Once established, irrigation schedules can be significantly cut back to feed beets without harming the crop.
Because feed beets are a non-maturing crop, meaning they do not have to be harvested on a strict schedule, irrigation can be curtailed to a well-established feed beet crop, then added again once water is available.
This is because feed beets have a deep rooting system that allows it to mine water from 10 feet or more.
“If you cut the water to corn you’ll affect the yield,” Bernhardson says.
This drought tolerance and the fact that upwards of two-thirds of the water needed for corn is not needed to grow feed beets, could make the beet crop more attractive to California growers facing shorter or curtailed water supplies due to drought and regulatory constraints.
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Mr. De Groot said water was a significant factor in his decision to grow feed beets. During the past several seasons of drought they partitioned as much water to the corn silage as possible; using what remained to grow alfalfa and feed beets.
De Groot dairies are self-sufficient in terms of growing corn silage. While the feed beets add to the mixed ration, the need for high quality alfalfa outpaces what the farm can produce, causing De Groot to buy high quality hay grown outside the California border and blend with what he grows.
Even with the water challenges, the farm manages 65 up to 75 tons per acre production from its feed beets and 32 tons per acre from its corn silage.
Waymire says he feeds cows beets in two ways. In the summer months he grinds the beets and feeds it fresh with the TMR. In winter months fermented beets from the pit are added to the mixed ration.
His practice is to feed all milk cows some form of feed beet and “a little to the dry cows because that’s our cheapest form of energy,” according to Waymire.
More on the passing of Tony De Groot, Sr.
Mr. De Groot’s son, Tony, Jr. says while the family lost a great husband, father and opa, the industry also lost an unbelievable entrepreneur in multiple business areas.
“My father had his mind in everything and at 80 years young, he had a desire to learn more and more every day. His legacy will surely live on in all the lives and businesses’ he has touched. His death leaves us sad and happy knowing he is with his Heavenly Father who he truly loved.”