Dairyman Paul Rovey faces the same scenario as other western milk producers besieged by lower prices and higher feed costs – create crop production efficiencies without sacrificing quality.
Rovey may have found an answer for the family’s Rovey Dairy  – so called ‘feed beets.’ Feed beets (beets) are sugar beet hybrids grown for dairy and beef cow rations.
“Beets are a leap ahead for the dairy industry and can help dairymen become more efficient, sustainable, and reduce input costs,” Rovey said.
Rovey is growing beets on an experimental basis.
This June, Rovey harvested his first crop of beets on the Rovey farm during a feed beet field day sponsored by Betaseed , a beet seed producer based in Shakopee, Minn.
Rovey is growing Betaseed’s first feed beet varieties - DFR241 and DRR251 – which include Genuity herbicide tolerant genetics.
About 40 people watched intently as harvest equipment crisscrossed the 38-acre beet field, planted late last fall. The field is adjacent to the Arizona Loop 101 freeway with the University of Phoenix stadium, home of the National Football League’s Arizona Cardinals, a short stone’s throw across the highway.
Representatives of the Amity Technology  farm equipment company were on hand. Amity’s model 3200 defoliator mowed the green tops off the beets. The company’s model 2200 harvester plucked the beets from the soil. An attached vertical conveyor belt dumped the beets into a semi-truck trailer moving parallel to the harvester.
The beets were trucked to the dairy site where a machine from Cross cleaned the beets, removed stones, and chopped the beets into nugget size.
As the ration with beets was fed to the cow herd, Rovey meandered around the cows with a grin pasted across his face.
Rovey, wife Deborah, and four children – Tamara, Eric, Mark, and Brett – operate the dairy located in Glendale, just west of Phoenix. The milk is processed into cheese in nearby Tempe.
Rovey is no stranger in dairy circles. He serves as chairman of Dairy Management Incorporated and the U.S. Dairy Export Council. He is on the boards of directors of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and the Salt River Project. Rovey is president of United Dairymen of Arizona.
A lower-cost crop alternative
Rovey’s dairy-based crop mix includes 1,800 acres of corn silage, sorghum silage, barley, alfalfa, Bermudagrass, and beets; all on family-owned land.
Why did Rovey decide to try beets? Nutritionist Niles Jennett of Dairy Veterinary Services in Chandler, Ariz. and Betaseed animal nutrition lead Craig Talley discussed the crop option with Rovey in the farm office.
After the 20-minute meeting, Rovey decided to give beets a try under one condition – the beets must be grown on the flat.
“My one requirement was production on the flat with open ports to irrigate,” the dairyman said. “Beet production has to be easy and simple. We can’t have a lot of labor since labor is expensive.”
Before planting the beet seed, the land was laser leveled between the 66-foot-wide borders. Rovey planted the seed with a corn planter.
Rovey calls the beet a highly digestible crop and very palatable to milk cows.
“Beets are a natural feed with highly digestible fiber for milk cows and a great source of sugar as an energy feed,” Rovey said.
Feed beets are an easier feed source for the cow’s body to process, says Rovey. While a cow converts corn silage from starch into sugar to milk, beet sugar is converted directly into milk.
For years, sugar beets have been grown in California, mostly in the Imperial Valley. Some California dairymen have tried beets for feed. Beets are also grown in Germany, Denmark, and Ireland.
Beets can be grown in many climates year-round.
“Beets are about feeding cows a nutritious crop at a lower cost of production,” Talley told the crowd. “Beets bring highly digestible fiber, sugar, and pectins to the ration. It is a very nutritious crop for cows.”
Can beets can be grown in the West as spring and fall crops, creating 365-days-a-year production? No one knows yet, but Rovey is searching for answers.
Rovey planted 70 more acres of beets this spring, bringing the farm total to 108 acres. Rovey will plant a test plot this summer to find how beets will emerge in Arizona’s extreme summer heat.
Betaseed is working with several California dairies to grow its lines of beets.
Less water, nitrogen
Rovey’s production costs on the 38-acre beet parcel totaled about $100 per dry ton of feed (about $25 wet ton), based on the 49-tons-per-acre beet yield. The yield was much more than his 30-31 tons per acre average for corn silage.
His beet production costs are about one-third to two-thirds less compared to corn silage.
“We’ve significantly beaten our corn silage tonnage so beets appear to be a natural way to achieve a cheaper, high quality feed for dairy cows,” Rovey said.
The dairyman plans to replace some corn and sorghum silage acreage and alfalfa ground with beets.
According to Rovey, beets require less nitrogen (N) and water to grow than corn silage. Reduced N is possible as the beet root tunnels down about 5-6 feet down in the soil. The root fractures the hardpan to gain access to N which most other crops cannot reach.
Water use in Rovey’s beet field with loam soil was about 3.4 acre feet; about one-third of the water needs for corn silage.
Rovey’s plant stand was about 60,000 plants per acre. The seeding rate was 0.60 units per acre.
So far, Rovey has not seen pest threats at an economic threshold to warrant a spray. He sprayed twice with Roundup for weed control. An unexpected outbreak of powdery mildew was managed with two sprays of sulfur.
Beets, in general, are a salt tolerant crop.
Looking five years out, Rovey hopes to grow 700-800 acres of beets; 300 acres for his own cow herd and the balance to sell to local dairymen.
Rovey concluded, “I think beets will be a huge opportunity to make the dairy industry more viable.”
Are there drawbacks to beets for livestock producers? Unlike dried alfalfa and corn, the beet is a perishable crop. The beet can remain in its whole form for several weeks but then must be stored or fed.
What do other dairymen think about beets? New Mexico dairymen Loren and Rebekah Horton traveled about 360 miles to attend the field day. The Horton’s milk Holstein cows and grow about 7,000 acres of crops.
“Everything I’ve seen today is fantastic,” Horton said.
He wonders if beets can be grown with drip irrigation.
“If we can make beets work with drip, I think beets could be a home run for us.”
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