Learn how to grow mangel-wurzel beets as a feed crop to slash your livestock feed bill and gain greater self-sufficiency on your homestead!
On our farm, the Sow’s Ear, we hate paying for feed so much that we’ve worked out some terrific feed crops we can grow ourselves. They save us money, which is great, but just as important, they make us independent of the commercial ag industry – so when there’s a shortage of anything, we don’t have to care. And we never have to wonder what’s really in that sack of crumbles.
4 Features We Want in Feed Crops
Over the years of researching old-fashioned crops for feeding animals – things that were common before there were feed stores – we have learned a lot. One thing is for sure: growing animal feeds has to be easy, or we’re not going to do it! So all our animal feed crops have a few things in common:
- They are easy to grow. That means not only that they don’t take a lot of care, but they have few or no pests or diseases.
- They produce a whole lot of feed on a small space. Because that’s what we’ve got.
- They store passively – we don’t have to freeze, dry, refrigerate, or can them. They cost nothing to store.
- They can be fed out as-is, no processing. We don’t want to cook dinner for our dinner
Fortunately, we have found several crops that fit the bill perfectly. Probably the most important of all is the mighty mangel-wurzel.
Growing Mangel-Wurzel on the Homestead
The name sounds like a joke, but this is one seriously useful crop. Although we feed most of our mangel-wurzel beets to pigs, all our farm animals love them: cows, sheep, goats, even the chickens. Mangels alone save us hundreds of dollars in feed every year.
How to Plant Mangel-Wurzel
Mangels are just really big beets, and you grow them just like you would any beet, only with more space:
- Plant mangels in the spring, ideally, as early as the ground can be worked without clumping.
- Sow seeds about 4 inches apart, 3/4 inch deep, with 2 feet between the rows.
- Thin to one plant every 8 inches or so.
- Keep the weeds at bay until the plants are big enough to compete.
That’s it! They’ll grow all summer long. In the fall you’ll have some enormous roots, not round like a table beet, but tall and narrow like a daikon radish. They often weigh ten or fifteen pounds apiece. In a good year, we harvest more than a ton of mangel-wurzel beets from 1/10 acre. Mangels root cellar for months without deterioration; we feed them to the pigs all winter and they keep perfectly. As we write (June 6), there are still mangels in our root cellar that are just as sound now as when we put them there last October.
Tips for Growing Mangel-Wurzel
Now all this may sound great, but any time we farmers share a tip, it’s good to share the possible problems as well. So what does raising mangels really look like?
Mark Your Rows
Well, like any beet, mangel-wurzel can be slow to germinate. So MARK YOUR ROWS when you plant, so you can cultivate even before the mangels come up! We plant with an Earthway seeder, hence plant spacing can be a little erratic, so it’s really important that we mark rows. Drawing a furrow with a hoe and planting in the furrow serves to mark the row, and assures us that our seeds will get plenty of moisture when it rains.
Thin Crowded Plants
THIN RELIGIOUSLY. Root crops can’t lean away from one another if they’re crowded, so if you want to get big roots, you have to give them big room. We thin twice, usually. Once with a hoe, just chopping down the row to leave a plant/plants every eight inches. This is a relatively quick chore, one even boy-children don’t mind too much! On the second pass, we thin any clumps of seedlings down to one, or at most two mangels per 8 inches in the row; and while we’re on our knees, we pull any weeds that are in the row. This is the only hand cultivation we are going to do on this crop.
As for the rest, we cultivate between rows with our wheel hoe – wonderful tool, saves labor and time – with the stirrup hoe attachment. The sweeps would probably work just as well. We’re only going to cultivate a couple of times because after the second or at the most third pass with the wheel hoe the mangels are going to start to meet between the rows and we can’t get in there without damaging the plants. No worries, though; for a while the beet leaves will shade out most weeds. When the surviving weeds get big enough to look like trouble, the beets are too big to be really bothered by them.
Harvesting Mangel-Wurzel Beets
Harvesting? You might expect that harvesting a giant root would be a chore, but this is one of the easiest crops to gather in. Most of the giant mangel root grows above ground, so to pull one all you have to do is rock it back and forth once to loosen it, and pull up.
We cut the tops off leaving an inch or so of leaf stem (so we’re not nicking the root itself); then the crop usually gets piled in the garden for a few days until we have time to gather them up. (We’ve never read that you have to do this, but since this gives them time to dry out a little, and for any broken root surfaces to ‘cork’, it may be an important step, who knows?) If we’re pulling them really late in the year (we harvest in October) and we’re worried about a hard frost, we throw a tarp over them.
How to Store Mangels
We bag mangels in old feed sacks (neighbors save them for us), and shove them in the root cellar or basement – anywhere that will be cool without freezing. Humidity is good for storage roots; our root cellar is very damp, and the mangels come out of there like they’ve just been picked. You could just pile them in the cellar without bagging them, which is what we did at first, but they are much easier to move in bags.
Learn how to build a Homestead Cold Room to store your crops.
Dealing with Mangel-Wurzel Pests
Pests? Well, there’s always a first time, but we’ve been growing mangels for many years and so far we haven’t had any real pests. The local rabbits and mice like them, so a few roots get nibbled, but that’s it. The harvest is large, and we can afford to share. If the cows get into the mangel patch, now, that’s a different matter; they like mangels as much as anyone, and they’ll eat them down to the ground. So take care of your fences!
Feeding Mangels to Livestock
We feed mangels mostly to pigs, and pigs just love them. Big pigs can tackle them whole; for smaller pigs, we cut them up a bit. Nothing fancy, we just chop big roots into several pieces. It’s a common-sense thing – small pig mouths have a hard time biting something the size of a football. For cows, sheep, and goats, you need to chop mangels small enough that they don’t present a choking hazard. Chickens are happy to peck at a whole mangel, or you can shred or crush them (use the shredder on your cider press).
That’s all there is to it. Mangels: A thousand years of European and American farmers grew them for animal feed, and you can too.
If you have trouble finding seeds, try Berlin Seeds in Berlin, Ohio. Tell them to order a lot more for next year, because demand is going up.
While economics shouldn’t always be the sole factor for the choices made on the homestead, of course, we want to be as economical as possible! Here are some other articles to help you lower your costs without sacrificing the health of your livestock.
- Save Money Raising Chickens for Eggs
- Dual-Purpose Chicken Breeds
- 145 Income Ideas on a Small Farm
- 11 Tips for Homesteading on a Budget
- How to Control the Cost of Raising Chickens
- Homegrown Animal Feed: Tromboncino
Shawn and Beth Dougherty have been farming together since the 1980s, for the last twenty years in eastern Ohio, where they manage 27 acres designated by the state as ‘not suitable for agriculture’, as well as a monastery farm of 100 acres. They write and travel on farming, dairying, farm-raised animal foods, and off-grid captured water systems. Shawn & Beth are the authors of The Independent Farmstead, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.
just heard about beets for livestock. thank you so much for the information. will definitely do this. have chickens and grain price quadrupled last fall.
Feed crops for food freedom!
Thanks so much for the information!! We have been talking about how to cut our feed bill!
We will do this thank you!!
Thank you!! My question was going to ask where on earth to buy seeds, but you answered that question. I guess it’s too late in the year to try and grow some?
You can always try! In our experience, you can’t expect to get the really big roots with a late planting
How can you seed save to produce your own seeds?
Just like for other beets, you can leave some roots in the field, or root cellar them over the winter and replant. Beets are biennials and will flower and set seed their second year. If you want seed true to type, though, you need to make sure none of your other beta vulgaris (table beets, sugar beets, chard, and so forth) are blooming at the same time.
Can you pls explain this:
If you want seed true to type, though, you need to make sure none of your other beta vulgaris (table beets, sugar beets, chard, and so forth) are blooming at the same time.
Well, all the beet species are one species, so they can cross-pollinate. If you want mangels, you want to make sure they can’t cross with table beets, chard, etc. It’s easy, since they are biennials — they only flower in their second year, hence you’ll only have to worry about cross-pollination if you are saving seed from two beta vulgaris varieties at once.
Really appreciate this article. Thank you!
while staying in england we saw livestock being fed this …and we wondered why not here? glad to see this idea has come across’the pond’
Mangels were actually a common fodder in the US until mechanization and commodity subsidies made grain, and later soy, the principle feedstocks.
Thanks so much! You both are always an encouragement in how you share what you’ve learned!
Can you leave the mangle-worzels in the ground all winter for the pigs to harvest themselves?
Hi! I just found this question! You can leave roots in the ground for pig harvest, yes, but if they freeze they’ll be difficult or impossible for the pigs to eat. WE tried with turnips one year, and it was not a success. Now we root cellar all our root crops, whether for feed or for the table.
Thank you for this detailed breakdown Beth! One question, do you ever harvest some of these (or the greens) to eat yourselves early or do you utilize strictly for livestock? We are planning to incorporate this crop next season, bring on the Mangels!
Hi, Kelly! We do eat mangels, mostly the greens, which are just beet greens and great cooked or in salads. The root is less tasty than table beets, but crisp and sweet when raw.
Oh that’s great! I was wondering if some of the salads we had at the dairy intensive were with mangel greens 🙂 thanks so much ☺️
Probably table beets at that time, but now the mangel greens are big and beautiful they’ll feature large in our salads!
Thanks for the information? What portion of your pig diet is the beets? And many pigs can you feed with the harvest on your 1/10th acre?
Since our animals are fed from what the farm produces, their diets are very seasonal. Mangels are harvested in October; they’ll store in the root cellar into the next summer (there are a few there now). Since they store so well, we tend to feed perishables first, mangels to fill in. That said, in January through April mangels are about 1/3 – 1/2 of our pigs’ (three or four hogs at a time) diet. Think of mangels as carbs, fiber, and minerals. The rest of the day’s feed might be household scraps, hay, winter squash, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes — whatever the farm offers. The game changer when you’re feeding omnivores (pigs, chickens) is surplus dairy; its fats and proteins mean that you can make up the diet with almost anything else — even hay. With a dairy cow you can take the bulk of your solar energy capture, every day, all year, and turn it into the highest quality protein, fats, and sugars.
Thank you for this introduction! We are in Northern California where the rain stops (usually) in May and comes back in November. How much water do these beets need, considering irrigation?
Hmm, we seldom or never irrigate them after germination, so I’d just be guessing! Most garden advice is for an inch of water a week. I wonder if you would be better off growing during your rainy season? If it’s cool without freezing, I think they’d do well.
Thank you! We freeze maybe 2-7 nights a year. We could cover them like we do citrus for a night or two if needed. I sure appreciate the recommendation.
Okay, how do you save seeds so they can be grown year after year.
You can either leave a couple in the garden over the winter and let them bolt (flower and set seed) the next summer, or, if you are worried that they won’t survive in your garden all winter (like maybe the bunnies and deer will eat them), store them in the root cellar and then replant in the spring. Remember that they are just beets, though, so if you are saving seed from your table beets, too, alternate years: one year let your table beets bolt, the next year your mangels. Good luck!
I met you at the Homesteader’s event at Rory Feek’s last year. I learned so much from your pasture management class and just talking to you at your booth about tromboncino squash and mangel-wurzels! This year we planted the mangels and our pigs LOVE them!! We are convinced we need to grow much more next year. Thanks for your wisdom!
I wish we lived closer, I’m sure we’d be friends.
Dear Sarah, I’m so glad you tried the mangels, they are a great crop! And thank you for the kind words; I’m sure we would be friends. Blessings! Beth
We live in Southern California (super hot with extended temps over 100 degrees F during the summer with NO rain what so ever. And we have no cellar. Any suggestions for us to grow these or should we just throw our hands up in despair like we have done for pretty much everything I try to grow. LOL
How do you grow other things? Mangels are fine with a hot growing season, but of course they need some water to make that big root. Do you irrigate? Are you allowed to sequester rainwater? Maybe you should think about tromboncino or some other squash as a primary feed crop. And then there’s corn, fed as a whole plant before complete maturity. Plant it as though you were going to grow sweet corn (12 inch spacing) and then harvest a few stalks with ears at a time to feed; or plant it like silage corn (several plants per foot) and feed the stalks without ears, either way. But of course everything needs some water . . .
Thank you for this extensive information on this crazy big root crop I’ve never heard of!
Now I’m on the hunt for where to purchase the seeds or tubers.
I saw your gorgeously romantic farm on Justin Rhodes and look forward to the Abundance Plus classes you created even though we don’t own a cow or the land for a cow…yet. 🙂
I bless you!