Surplus potatoes head to feedlots this spring

Spuds can be fed whole to range cattle, but feedlots must grind them up so that they can be added to other ingredients in the ration

Mashed, baked or fried: none of these potato options are suitable for cattle, but raw potatoes can provide a win-win scenario for potato and cattle producers.

Drastic changes to food service because of COVID-19 reduced demand for french fries and other spud preparations served in restaurants. Processors didn’t require raw potatoes with which to make fries and related products, leaving many potato producers with product in storage.

Cattle feed is a potential market for them, and some feeders are taking advantage of the low-cost feed ingredient opportunity.

“Potatoes are a great source of energy because they’re really high in digestible starch,” said Alberta Beef Producers production specialist Karin Schmid.

“But as with any high energy feed, (cattle) need to be gradually adapted, so you start with a small amount and then work your way up.

“Up to half of the ration might be potatoes on a dry matter basis but because of their high moisture content, you do need to feed it with a consistent source of forage to keep the rumen functioning.”

Terence Hochstein, executive director of Potato Growers of Alberta, said there were about 10,000 tons of potatoes available as of June 2, though that number changes daily. Once destined for processors, the potatoes are sitting in storage but have to be moved so facilities can be readied for the 2020 crop.

“There are some growers that are moving it into the feedlot, people that they know. It’s just another avenue where we can dispose of some potatoes that aren’t going to get used,” said Hochstein.

“We’re putting a potato every place that we can put one.”

Raw potatoes can be fed as is to range cows and other bovines but for feedlot use, most operators are grinding them up, mixing them with straw and silage and then putting them back in the pile for use in a total mixed ration, he said.

That puts the onus on feedlot operators to ensure rations are properly balanced to ensure nutritional requirements are met.

“They can sometimes be pretty low in minerals and vitamins so you need to kind of make sure that the ration makes up for that in other ways, if it contains a high proportion of potatoes,” said Schmid.

There is a small risk of choking if potatoes are fed whole, she added. That can be mitigated by feeding them on the ground or in a bunk or trough so cattle consume them with their heads down.

Cutting up the raw potatoes can further mitigate the risk, but that extra step can be prohibitive, depending on equipment available and time spent.

Potatoes are bulky so they are expensive to ship. Cattle producers close to potato facilities are likely the ones best situated to take advantage of the cheap feedstuff.

“It could be very economical if you can find some that are reasonably close to you,” said Schmid.

On the potato grower side, Hochstein said sales of potatoes to beef producers aren’t a windfall by any means.

“It’s better than zero but not a whole lot better. It’s better than burying them,” he said.

Of greater concern for the PGA at this stage is the plight of seed potato growers. There were 10,000 fewer acres of potatoes contracted for 2020 as processors cut back their needs in light of ongoing lower food service demand.

That has left seed potato growers with a lot of inventory that is now useless, Hochstein said.

“We’ve got 11,000 tons that have to go into a hole in the ground. The cows won’t even eat them anymore. They’re sprouted. They’ve got sprouts on them a foot long. They’re garbage.”

Green or sprouted potatoes are toxic to cattle because they can contain high levels of glycoalkaloids, which are the plants’ defence against insects.

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