Mangel beets have been a dependable food source for both humans and livestock since ancient Grecian times. We’ve loved growing them in our garden. But, we don’t grow mangel beet for us, we grow them for the chickens!
ABOUT GROWING MANGEL BEETS FOR CHICKENS
The beets (also known as fodder beets or mangel-wurzel) were once grown extensively as a livestock feed. However, usage dwindled over the last century as big farms using mechanized production techniques replaced family farms.
It’s difficult to mechanically thin and harvest beets, so as the number of mechanized farms grew, production declined. But today, mangels are being rediscovered by backyard and small-scale chicken-keepers. That’s because they’re a great supplemental feed for our birds.
WHY MANGEL BEETS
Mangels are highly nutritious, easy to produce, can grow to immense sizes (up to 20 pounds), and store well; making them a good substitute for fresh greens in winter. Chickens love them, and they can be hung in the coop to provide both food and a wintertime pecking distraction.
Prior to World War II and the onset of mechanized farming, poultry-keepers didn’t drive to the store and pick up 50 pound bags of pelletized grain for their flock. Instead, the chickens were expected to forage on the homestead and exist on what excess the farm produced.
The grains commonly found in poultry feed today were considered too expensive for chickens (at best the flock got a little scratch grain everyday). So, the chickens lived on the grubs, greens, and excess farm scraps they could find on the homestead. However, times could get lean during winter months. So many of our chicken-keeping ancestors grew mangel beets to supplement their flock’s diet through winter.
Back in 1926, Henry Field’s Seed Sense had this to say about mangel beets, “If you don’t grow mangel beets for anything else, grow them for your chickens. They furnish a very important food element for your laying hens. Your hens will loaf on the job during the winter if they do not have green food of some kind like sprouted oats, cabbage, or beets. Mangels are easy to grow and make enormous yields.” That’s advice that we can still use today, and it can also help us reduce the cost of feeding our flocks.
WHAT ARE MANGEL BEETS
The mangel beet is a biennial plant that is usually grown for the large root it produces. If left to overwinter, the plant will produce seed in the second year. But, mangel beets are typically cultivated for fodder as an annual crop and the roots are harvested before winter in the first year.
Mature roots weigh from 6 to 20 pounds depending on the variety grown. They have a high sugar content making them a good energy source for chickens. The flesh of mangels is usually reddish or yellow, and the varieties available today include the Yellow Cylindrical, Giant Yellow Eckendorf, Mammoth Red, Colossal Long Red, and Geante Blanche.
MANGEL BEET HISTORY
Mangel beets originated in the Middle East, and were used as livestock feed in ancient Greece as early as 500 BC. The Romans spread the beets to Europe. In Northern Europe, they have been used for livestock fodder since the Middle Ages.
Mangel beets became a major source of winter livestock feed in the 1800’s, and were introduced into the US in the early 1800’s. They remained a popular crop for livestock until the early 1900’s because of their drought tolerance, excellent storage qualities, high sugar content, high nutritive value, and yields. However, lack of mechanized techniques for producing mangels then led to a dramatic decline in production. Today, limited amounts are produced worldwide, but their popularity as a livestock feed is on the rise.
GERMINATING & PLANTING
Mangel beets should be grown in full sun and can tolerate a wide range of soils. But they prefer deeply cultivated, well-drained soils free of clumps or rocks. The soil PH should measure between 6 and 8. If the soil PH tests less than 6, then it should be limed to bring the PH level into the appropriate range.
In USDA zones 8a or below, the beets are usually planted in spring 2 – 4 weeks before the last spring frost. In zones 8b or above, they do better planted in early winter. Adding a layer of well composted manure into the bed prior to planting helps improve yields. But, fresh manure should be avoided since too much nitrogen can cause vigorous leaf production at the expense of the roots.
Beet seeds are protected by a thick outer layer. So, for rapid germination, it’s best to soak the seeds in warm water for 12 hours prior to seeding. Recommended seed placement in the bed is at a depth of 1/2 – 1 inch, with an in-row spacing of 4 – 6 inches, and at least 12 inches between rows.
Beets germinate slowly in colder weather (they sprout best in temperatures above 50°F), and weed seeds may germinate faster than the beets. So, it’s a good idea to mark the rows and cultivate carefully to remove weeds until the beet seedlings emerge. Beets germinate in 5 – 10 days if kept moist and warm. But, each seed pod contains multiple seeds, so thinning after germination is essential. Thin by snipping out weaker seedlings shortly after germination, then a week or two later, thin seedlings to 6 – 10 inches apart in the row.
GROWING & HARVESTING MANGEL BEETS
Beets grow best when weeded and watered regularly, and when daytime temperatures are about 65 – 70°F. They naturally push up out of the ground as they grow. So, light mulches of grass clipping or compost can be used to control weeds and maintain soil moisture once the beets have begin pushing through the soil. Mangle beets are relatively pest free. Although flea beetles may make tiny holes and leaf miners may tunnel into the leaves, healthy plants will quickly outgrow any damage.
The lower leaves of mangels can be lightly harvested and fed to your chickens as the beets grow. This stimulates leaf production and doesn’t inhibit root production. The roots can be harvested when they reach maturity (when outer leaves begin to wither) or they can be left in the ground until fall. But, they should be harvested before frost. Mangels are injured by frosts and beets that have been damaged will quickly rot in storage.
To harvest, dig up the beet and cut off the top leaves within 2 – 4 inches of the root top. The way mangel beets grow, they are at least half out of the ground already. So digging them is generally easy. However, beets that are damaged during digging or by topping too close to the root will rot in storage, so it’s best to harvest carefully.
STORING & FEEDING BEETS TO CHICKENS
Freshly harvested mangel beets can contain high levels of nitrates (which can cause diarrhea in livestock). So, it’s customary to store them for a month or two before use. The ideal storage conditions for mangel beets are in a root cellar at approximately 33°F and 90 – 95% humidity. They also store well in less than ideal conditions if it’s cool, damp, and they don’t freeze. Only undamaged, disease-free roots should be kept. If stored properly, mangels will keep for at least 4 – 5 months (and often much longer).
To feed mangel beets to your chickens, simply remove any excess soil and hang whole in the coop. At first, it may take your chickens time to learn that the beets are edible and sweet tasting. But once they figure it out, they’ll enthusiastically peck and devour them. According to the 1933 text Farm Poultry Production, “feeding whole fodder beets to poultry can prevent aggression and cannibalism among the flock”.
Mangel beets are a marvelous food supplement for our chickens. They’re a delicious, nutritious, and healthy way to keep the flock busy no matter how deep the snow is outside. They’re also easy to produce, and help reduce feed costs. No wonder mangel beets are making a comeback! For additional ideas on feeding garden crops to your chickens, see Garden Greens for Goats & Chickens.