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Fodder beets find new favour on farms

The humble “scarcity root” makes a comeback



From Nov/Dec 2014

It’s a beet — but not as you know it.
Fodder beet — also known as mangel, mangel-wurzel, “the scarcity root” and mangold — was an animal-feed crop originally grown in the Rhineland (Germany) in the late 1700s and possibly even back to the 1500s.
And the monster-sized root is lately making a bit of a comeback.

This enlarged member of the beetroot family, Beta vulgaris, was grown for the past several centuries as a nutritious stock feed. The ancient roots can reportedly weigh in at well over 20 pounds.
So Small Farm Canada decided to take a fresh look at modern mangel growing, and check out its value to producers in both garden and fields.
Basically there are just two varieties out there—a yellow one and a red one. They may be a little hard to find, but a number of farm and garden seed suppliers have started to offer them.
The trial brought a few surprises. One is that mangels are very easy to grow. The second is that they are useful for more than just dishing up to the livestock.
“A lot of customers are using it for breaking up soil,” says Chris Saladi, at Johnny’s Seeds in Maine, who sells the Mammoth Red Mangel Beet variety by the pound. “You put them in the ground and as the beets grow they push out the soil. Then the farmer discs it back in as organic matter. People are also using it to feed cattle, chickens, pigs and sheep.”
A second variety is the Yellow Cylindrical Mangel Beet, which I ordered through seed supplier, The Cottage Gardener, based in Newtonville, Ontario.

Cottage Gardener owner, Mary Brittain carries both the mammoth red and the yellow cylindrical strains and says that she is seeing a renewed interest from small farmers who want to have a crack at growing their own stock fodder, like their ancestors did.
“Mangels, or fodder beets, were popular fodder (feed) in North America into the early 20th century due to their drought tolerance, high nutritional value and excellent winter-keeping qualities,” she said. “People used to feed a mix of fodder beet, carrots, turnips and rutabagas to their stock. But as farms became industrial-sized, the growing of stock feed became a specialty, and mangel beets almost disappeared.”
She says they are good enough to eat as roots at the baby vegetable stage, and that the leafy tops are always palatable.
“If you pick them young, they make fine table beets. The red ones can grow up to two feet long and the greens are delicious,” said Brittain.

Planting mangels/fodder beets

Fodder beets can mature in just 80 days but will grow bigger if you give them the option. They thrive in soil that is not too rich, but do like organic matter and moisture — just like regular beets.
Plant the big asteroid-shaped seeds in rows, half an inch to three-quarters of an inch deep, in later spring when things have warmed up a bit.
Once they get going (after only a few days to a week for germination), keep them gently watered.
As they grow they will need space to expand their girth, so thin them to around six inches apart as the roots develop. Pick the best ones as keepers. They will literally grow up and several inches out of the ground as they mature.
Mangels need heat and full sun, and regular water does help them bulk up and put on the pounds.
Harvest them in fall before they freeze, by pulling them steadily up and out of the ground. Watch your back with the monsters. Whack the green tops into a wheelbarrow. (Hopefully you have animals who will eat this valuable by-product). But keep the crown tip of the big root intact by cutting a good half an inch or an inch above that leafy point, so the mangel root can store healthily and wholly through winter.
Let your fodder beet dry off a bit before going into storage, and gently brush off the soil without damaging the skin. They shouldn’t go into safekeeping muddy, but neither do you want them to heat up in the sun and go floppy.
In milder climes, you could likely overwinter them in the ground under some straw, as you do with carrots.
Here on the Prairies, we brought them into our unheated cement basement (which doesn’t freeze) in September/October, and stored them in big 100 gallon heavy black plastic bins with some straw on the bottom.
We left the lids somewhat askew for ventilation, and although a little mildew flourished on some of the roots, overall they survived handsomely through three months of incessant minus-20 degrees days.
Chopped up small for our milking goats, they lasted throughout the entire winter, and right up till March, when the last ones were finally lifted from down deep in the bin, washed and diced.
So go ahead and try fodder beets. It’s worth a try—if only to be amazed at the food warehouse you can produce with a simple beet seed. Nature is amazing.


Other fodder beet suppliers

Other seed companies that carry mangel seeds in Canada include:

? Heritage Harvest Seed, Carman, Manitoba: ‘Golden Eckendorf Mangel’; 50 seeds/$3.95. ‘Colossal Long Red’; 50 seeds for $3.95.

? The Incredible Seed Company, Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia: ‘Yellow Cylindrical Mangel Beet’; 225 seeds/$2.75; ‘Mammoth Long Red Mangel’; 225 seeds/$2.75. (“You can also make wine with these,” says Chris Mueller, founder of the company.)

? Tree and Twig Heirloom Seeds, Wellandport, Ontario: Colossal Red Mangels; $3.25 per packet. “These are good for bunnies and chickens, and cooked up for pigs,” says owner Linda Crago. “They mature in 60 days, or you can leave them in the ground for massive tankards.”