The ancient Greeks used to feed it to their cattle. Now this nutritious and easily grown root crop is being repurposed to help India’s smallholder farmers feed their livestock when other feed crops aren’t available.
Fodder beets, also known as “mangels” or “mangel-wurzel” in parts of Europe, are an ancient precursor to the more commonly known sugar and table beet. Northern European farmers have been growing fodder beets to feed livestock since the Middle Ages, but this crop had never been grown in India until very recently. An effort by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research Central Arid Zone Research Institute (ICAR-CAZRI) was launched in 2010 to trial new drought and heat-tolerant fodder crops for farmers in India’s arid regions. Dr. S.P.S. Tanwar, a principal agronomist at ICAR-CAZRI, tells Grow Further that the program has taken off, with about 2,000 Indian farmers planting fodder beets in western Rajasthan, a state bordering Pakistan that’s famous for its hot, arid conditions.
The term “fodder” refers to animal feed that’s grown, harvested, and then fed to livestock, in contrast to naturally occurring forage like wild pasture grasses. Historically, livestock fodder often included a diverse array of crops grown specifically to feed livestock, including beets (cowpeas are another example). In the case of India, that nation’s “resource-poor” smallholder farmers need more “high energy-giving fodder (grown for) high production with less water” to be successful in climatically challenging regions, Tanwar explains.
According to Statista, approximately 60% percent of India’s population makes a living from agriculture, while census data shows that nearly 70% of India’s farmers are smallholders, farming less than one hectare of land. ICAR-CAZRI data shows India’s arid zone comprises about 12% of the country, covering 31.8 million hectares of land found mostly in the northwestern states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Haryana, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh. This region experiences low annual rainfall of around 100 millimeters to 500 millimeters (roughly 4 to 19 inches) and temperature extremes ranging from 1 to 48 degrees Celsius (34 to 118 degrees Fahrenheit). Farmers eking out a living in these challenging arid zones have evolved land use systems based heavily on pastoralism and animal husbandry. However, ICAR-CAZRI warns that over-exploitation of resources has caused rapid and widespread land degradation and a decline in productivity throughout the region.
The biggest issue for India’s arid zone farmers is declining water availability and a depleting groundwater table, Tanwar says. In addition, these arid regions suffer from a deficit of year-round available green fodder like sorghum and pearl millet, hence the need for fodder beets (the fodder beets fill a crucial gap between January to April). By growing beets, farmers can produce a large amount of animal feed in poor soils and with relatively little water, and during times when other crops aren’t available. A single fodder beet can weigh up to 5 or 6 kilograms (9 to 13 lbs.). By comparison, the table beets American consumers purchase at their grocery stores weigh in at about 1/3 lbs. apiece on average. ICAR-CAZRI’s fodder beet trials yielded as much as 230 tons of fodder per hectare in a short life-cycle of three to four months, which is very high compared to other fodder crops, Tanwar says.
While running its project ICAR-CAZRI discovered that livestock in arid regions have a net negative energy balance, meaning they don’t get enough feed to support their energy needs for optimum production. As compared with traditionally raised indigenous cattle, cross-bred cattle raised in stalls require more high-energy feed, which can be in short supply under desert conditions. This needed feed supply wasn’t available year-round before the introduction of fodder beets. India is one of the biggest milk producers globally, contributing 22% of the global milk supply. India’s indigenous cattle produce less than half the amount of milk that higher-producing cross-bred cows do, as Atul Chaturvedi pointed out in a recent op-ed for Mint. Thus, more nutritious fodder means better production for India’s dairy farmers.
In an interview with the Hindustan Times, ICAR-CAZRI director Dr. OP Yadav argued that fodder beets could help boost the dairy industry in western Rajasthan. Tanwar tells Grow Further that the team at ICAR-CAZRI hopes more farmers throughout India will begin planting fodder beets as word spreads about the advantages of the crop. The challenge now is ramping up seed availability, he says. Fodder beet seed is imported from Europe and Egypt, so it’s relatively expensive and not always available. But Tanwar hopes that with time, fodder beets will become more accessible for more Indian farmers to grow, boosting livestock production and making farming operations more sustainable. Though the fodder beet project primarily targets large ruminants—cattle and buffalo—the ICAR-CAZRI extension services hope to expand the project to farmers with smaller ruminants like sheep and goats.
Feed and fodder crops for smallholder farmers are critical to food security, particularly in arid regions where growing crops for direct human consumption can be difficult, and are on the agenda as a research area that Grow Further is considering supporting.