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.