2011 21.1 Identifying Alternative Livestock Feeds

Background/History of Alternative Forage Crops

There is growing interest among farmers in western Washington and elsewhere to raise forage and fodder crops for local small-scale livestock production. Before the 20th Century, livestock production relied on a large diversity of crops to sustain animals year-round including vegetable crops such as fodder beets, turnips, rutabagas, potatoes, and carrots.

Historical records show that vegetable fodder crops were fed to livestock throughout the winter in a specific order based on crop storage qualities starting with turnips, followed by rutabagas, and lastly fodder beets (aka mangels) and carrots.

Records indicate that in the late 14th century, turnips were grown to feed livestock all over Europe. Wider use of vegetable root crops as livestock feed didn’t occur until the 18th century. Until this time, Europeans commonly utilized what was called an open field system, where each manor or village had several very large fields, farmed in strips by individual families. Farmers utilized a three-field crop rotation or “three field system.”

Fields were split into sections, called furlongs (220 yards), which would be subdivided cross-wise into strips of half an acre each. These strips had a three crop rotation:

  1. Winter – rye or winter wheat;
  2. Spring – oats or barley;
  3. Summer/Fall – rest or ‘fallow.’

The British agriculturalist Charles Townshend was responsible for dispersing the four field rotation into areas throughout England:

  1. Winter – rye or winter wheat;
  2. Spring – turnips;
  3. Summer – barley;
  4. Fall – clover.

This included a fodder crop and grazing crop allowing livestock to be bred year-round, which dramatically increased productivity. Some historians point towards Townshend’s innovation as a major driver to the emigration of people from farms into the cities of England because of the increase in farm productivity. This great migration would later be termed the Industrial Revolution.

Modern Livestock Production

As the scale of livestock production increased and intensified, livestock and forage/fodder production became separate operations, each becoming established in separate regions that were most conducive to low cost production and supply.

New cropping systems arose to best fit the new large-scale livestock production system needs. Much of the vegetables used for supplemental feed were replaced by grains, as the economies of scale were greater while storage and distribution of grains became considerably cheaper. Vegetable fodder crops were essentially abandoned as they did not fit into these new production systems.

In the 1970s, as fuel prices surged and grain prices followed, USDA researchers developed a number of new varieties of vegetable crops that could be grown, stored, and fed to animals as supplements to grains. Many European countries, Australia, and New Zealand continue to utilize these crops today and many new varieties have been bred with increased yields, storability, and flexibility in use. Research in these countries continues and has developed highly productive methods to utilize these crops on a large scale using modern equipment and varieties.

With an increased interest in local production, and to help reduce costs of production, many livestock producers are looking for forage and fodder crops that are well adapted to local growing conditions, are affordable and effective to produce, while providing a good source of livestock nutrition.

Different Crop Types

There are a number of alternative forage and fodder crops that can be fed to livestock. Many are currently used to supplement feed for livestock production and often are not grown solely for livestock feed but are by-products of other farm or industry operations. WSU Extension research is geared towards the intentional production of a broad range of crops to be fed as forage and/or fodder.

‘Forage’ refers to crops grown to allow livestock access to the crop while it is still in the ground or actively growing. ‘Fodder’ refers to crops harvested, stored, and fed to livestock typically while they are confined during overwintering periods.

Most of the crops described here have dual purposes—their vegetative parts can be foraged (in some cases multiple times) and then the remaining portion of the plant can be harvested, stored, and fed to livestock later (e.g. beets, carrots, turnips.)

We focused our research efforts on fodder beets (chenopods), turnips, rutabagas, and kale (all brassicas) as these crops thrive in the Pacific Maritime Northwest and many integrated producers already have the skills and equipment to seed, maintain, and harvest these crops. As more vegetable growers add livestock into their farm production systems, evaluation and incorporation of crops like these and more will expand quickly.

Brassica Seed Production Districts

Certain areas of Skagit, Island,Snohomish, and Whatcom counties participate in what is referred to as a Brassica Seed Production District. As the world’s largest cabbage and cauliflower seed growing area, the seed farmers must maintain genetic purity through a system of cooperative agreements determining who grows what crops and varieties and, most importantly, where. Isolation distances of up to a half mile are often required.

While fodder and forage brassicas are not grown with the intent of raising seed, growers should be mindful that errant plants will produce pollen that will cause problems if you farm in one of these areas. 1

W. Wa Field Trials

On-farm research trials occurred in 2009 and 2010. Crop choices, varieties, days to harvest, and seeding rates are included in Table 1 above. Weather conditions between these two years could not have been more different during our trial periods. 2009 was a dry, hot growing season while 2010 was a cool, wet year.

Growing degree days (GDD), also called growing degree units (GDUs), are a measure of heat accumulation used by horticulturists, gardeners, and farmers to predict the date a plant will bloom or reach maturity. For the Snoqualmie Valley, where we had one set of trials, there were GDD of 2352 in 2009 and only 1431 in 2010 during the trial periods!

Another notable difference—2009 trials were planted as early as May, while 2010 trials were planted considerably later, most in July. We found this to be a major factor in biomass accumulation and distribution (root vs. shoot) for each crop species.

Trials occurred at three farms in 2009 and two in 2010. All fields were established using common preparation methods (plowing, rototilling, or spading) for vegetable crops in the region and crops were seeded utilizing common vegetable seeders (Earthway, Planet Jr., or Starco.)

Crops were grown for various seasonal lengths until maturity and then livestock were allowed access. Though seed sources were not organically certified, all crops were managed under organically approved conditions. Seed sources included Ampac Seed Co., Limagrain (formerly Advanta Seeds Inc.), and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.


Yield results are included in Table 2 on the next page. The addition of manure increased plant biomass across the years and crop types. It should be noted however, that the addition of manure did result in an increased allocation to shoot growth in root crops, especially ‘Mammoth Red’ and ‘Purple Top’. Fodder beets recorded the highest average yield across years, but ‘Keeper’ kale was not far behind. It should be noted that the kale biomass was all vegetative growth and did include any root mass.

Nutritional analyses of these crops were only performed in 2010 and results are included in Table 3, also on the next page. We found protein levels to be much higher in these crops than reported elsewhere.

Protein levels were related to soil fertility levels (particularly nitrogen) and thus were lower in plots that did not receive manure prior to planting. Potassium levels were 4.3-9.5% of DM and these high levels could potentially cause some metabolic diseases in cows. See web site listed in Resources for more nutritional analysis data.


These crops show excellent potential for use as a livestock feed in western Washington, although their use will likely fill times of low pasture production during the transitional times of the spring and fall. The yield quantity and quality matches many commonly purchased feed sources. Additionally, their role in pasture renovation and rotation is yet to be determined (2011 trials), but are key features to their sustained use in other countries.

Observations suggest that strip or “mob” grazing these crops seem to be the most effective forage opportunity. While harvest and storage as fodder crops requires increased labor and handling, they do offer a quality feedstock during winter months.

Recent research in Europe has found these crops improve the quality of silage when co-ensiled with corn. The authors intend to pursue further research on this in coming years. Feeding brassica species to livestock should proceed with some caution. Grazing “time-on” should be no more than an hour or two and should not make up more than 67% of their daily DM intake. 2

Modern crop varieties specifically bred for livestock feed have been selected for lower levels of amino acids that can lead to anemia. Mixing pasture access with access to brassicas can overcome this problem.

Special Thanks

Eric and Wendy Haakensen (Jubilee Farms) Holly and Valeria Foster (Zestful Gardens), LaLaine Wong (Creviston Valley Farm), and Dennis Schakel (Schakel Dairy) for their participation and willingness to share information.


For more information on these trials along with photos and videos visit www.pierce.wsu.edu/ag and www.vegetables.wsu.edu.
Seed resources include: www.rhshumway.com, and www.johnnyseeds.com.


1 Brassica Seed Production Districts “To support oilseed production while protecting the state’s vegetable seed industry, a state law was enacted in 2007 and WSDA adopted rules in January 2008 for the orderly production of brassica seed crops (e.g., canola and cabbage).” From michiganorganic.msu.edu): “When feeding forage brassicas to milking cows, it is recommended that cows do not graze the brassica crop within a three-hour period prior to milking to ensure that no flavoring of the milk occurs.

There are certain animal health considerations that need to be kept in mind when grazing brassica crops. ‘Bonar’ rape should never be grazed until it has reached maturity as photo-sensitivity can occur in animals. A purple color at the leaf tips indicates that the ‘Bonar’ is mature and safe to graze. ‘Pasja’ [turnip] can be grazed early as it does not require the ripening that ‘Bonar’ rape does.

During drought, brassica regrowth should be allowed to mature, and no nitrogen
applied to reduce the risk of nitrate poisoning.

Some brassica crops, most commonly kale, can sometimes contain a sulfa-based compound called sis-methly cistein sulphoxide (SMCO) that can cause anemia, and a depression of appetite in grazing animals. If a reddish color is noted in the urine, then animals should be removed from the crop. ‘Kestrel’ kale is bred for low SMCO levels.

Hypothyroidism can also be a problem with brassica crops but is easily treated with an iodine supplement.”

Tags: Brassica, Feed, GDD, Growing Degree Days, History, Livestock, Research Trials, Seed Production Districts, Seeds