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Grow Roots Now
For More Lambs Later

©2004 By Nathan Griffith

A number of people wrote to me after three consecutive years of 200% lambing rates, to ask how we did it.

We didn’t do it with Booroola Merinos, Finns, Polypays, Romanovs, or any other highly fecund breed-although that’s certainly one very quick way to get multiple births. We’ve chosen all our brood ewes and rams from multiple-birth lambs for decades, but statistically, that normally only results in a 1.5% rise in overall flock twinning per year.

3-4 lb. mangels of the variety 'Half Sugar' The gallon-jug beside is for comparison.
3-4 lb. mangels of the variety ‘Half Sugar’ The gallon-jug beside is for comparison.

Accidental Discovery

The high fecundity first occurred when we had to feed mangels, rutabagas, and kohlrabies early in the season, due to a shortage of grass during August, September and October. I’ll leave it to the science boys and girls to argue over “whys and wherefores,” but supplementing with root crops has long been known to give “the bloom of health” to show sheep, and has often been called “liquid grain.”

Usually root crops are 80-90% water-but the 10-20% nutrients they contain are way more digestible than grains.

They are not a substitute for hay or silage though-rams and wethers can get kidney stones from too much root feeding, and ewes can get their own problems if fed ad lib on roots. Fed that way, they eat too much-15 to 20 lbs. or more a day!

We only feed about 2-5 lbs. daily, max. At first we used rutabagas and kohlrabies, and found them excellent. We later used mangels (stock beets), and they work very well too.

For full information on the different types of root crops, see Chapter 29-Root Crops, in my book Husbandry. (See sheep! bookstore for details)

Roots: Why & Why Not?

The biggest root crop yield I have heard of was with mangels-68 tons to the acre. But many, many records list well over 40 tons with both mangels and rutabagas.

Even small corn plants have extensive roots.
Even small corn plants have extensive roots.

So why doesn’t everybody grow them instead of corn? Simply put: Labor.

It’s fairly easy to grow 10 tons/acre of corn silage with about the effort of mowing the lawn, using common machinery. This is because corn roots quickly dominate the whole soil. Even a young corn plant has more roots than leaf area, feeding mostly in the top four inches of soil:

Machinery for root crop growing is much less available than corn-growing equipment. And you still need hand labor when thinning (or transplanting), weeding, harvesting and storing roots. The equivalent of that 10-ton silage crop would be 15 tons of roots/acre.

If you have a small flock, and plan only to feed the roots during tup-time (breeding season) you might be amazed at how small an area you need.

Ten ewes, if fed 5 lbs. each/day (about the maximum) for 2 months’ flushing/breeding would require 3000 lbs. of roots. This amount will grow in as little as 12 square rods (a rod is 16.5 feet square) in the cool, humid-summer areas of the country. But half this amount would probably suffice. Done right, that would need 1/26th of an acre-about 6 square rods.

How Roots Grow

Most root crops can sprout and do well in cool soil-they stand hard frosts when the crop is young, but later, they’re more likely to rot if frozen.

Root crops send down a taproot with side feeders. That taproot must have nutrients all along its length for top crops. So for roots, the soil must first be deeply dug. Two feet deep isn’t too deep, if you can manage it. You won’t get much of a crop if you plow or dig less than 8 inches.

Instead of tillage, potatoes and other root crops may be mulched, like these.
Instead of tillage, potatoes and other root crops may be mulched, like these.

Root crops, when they’re properly spaced, fertilized and cultivated, make a lot of leaf area, which shades the soil. The leaves fade as the roots suck out the nutrients. The old leaves turn brown and drop off after new leaves appear. So encouraging leaf growth helps make a large root crop.

Winter freezes don’t hurt parsnips, and rutabaga and kohlrabi can stand an awful lot of freezing before they start to rot. Mangels and carrots are very much damaged by freezing, though light frosts tend to only sweeten their flavor.


High fertility is mandatory. If you’re using sheep dung alone, use 40 tons/acre, which makes about two lbs. per square foot. Try to get it thoroughly worked throughout the plow-depth (remember: eight inches minimum!). If you use store-bought fertilizers, use what it would take to equal the amount of nutrients in the manure, and try to get it well spread within the plow depth too.


Plants should be thinned or transplanted to stand about 10 inches apart in the row, with rows about two feet apart, which makes around 22,000 plants per acre. If you want good tonnage-say 30 to 40 tons-you’ll need the swollen roots to weigh between 3-4 lbs. each. Easily done: Many specimens have been exhibited in excess of 15 lbs.

Mangels in a weed-free starter bed.
Mangels in a weed-free starter bed.

It’s way easier to grow five tons of mangels on one-tenth acre than to grow five tons per acre-which is what you’ll get if you don’t fertilize, dig, and weed well.

Because weeds are such an enemy of root crops, it’s best to start them in a weed-free bed in your garden. In fact, before we sow the seed we burn a brush pile there to destroy the weed seeds with heat, while adding potash from the ashes. That way (if you plan to transplant) you can keep up the power-tillage at the final growing site-right up until planting time-thwarting the weeds there, too.

Mangels can handle more heat and drought than other roots, but they take a lot longer to grow. Most roots prefer places where the summer temperatures don’t often rise up to 80ºF, like the Pacific Northwest, and some areas in the East and upper Midwest. If you’re in a hot, dry area, roots won’t do well for you unless you have irrigation, and even then, only mangels stand up to harsh heat.

Example of the size of roots to transplant.
Example of the size of roots to transplant.

Sow seeds as early as it’s possible to work the ground finely. After about June first, forget it-wait until next year, except with rutabagas, which grow fast. Or try pumpkins instead.

Plant root seeds about an inch apart, 1/2-inch to 1-inch deep, in rows about 15 inches apart in garden beds of excellent soil. Side-dressed fertilizer or pulverized poultry dung, 3 to 4 inches down, helps get fast growth.

When the plants are as big in diameter as your thumb, pull them up and plant them in a furrow that is about 6 inches deep. They grow better if the bottom of that furrow is lined with poultry dung and then watered. First clip off the taproot at about 1 inch from the swelling part of the root, and dunk them into a thick manure/water paste. Also clip off 2/3 of the leaf so it won’t draw too much moisture out of the root. Lay them into the rows, then come along and with a two-step motion, re-earth them in and firm them. Try to do all without stooping or bending down.

Cover and firm the roots with your feet.
Cover and firm the roots with your feet.

They’ll wilt and look miserable for two weeks, when they’ll suddenly put new leaf growth up through the middle. Keep the weeds hoed down. Even if summer drought dries up the ground, hoe weekly-don’t suffer a weed to live in your root crops.

If you’ve dug well, and heavily fertilized, then by late August, you ought to have at least a few 3-lb roots. Pull up and feed them daily as needed for flushing or breeding your ewe flock.

When the first fall freezes threaten, pull up the remainder of the roots. Kohlrabies and rutabagas won’t be freeze damaged until about Christmas time in most Northern areas, but frozen ground will lock them in. As you pull them, twist off the green tops, stack the roots and then cover them. If they freeze, most roots start to rot. You can feed the tops to sheep, but not all at once (avoid tummy ache!), and for some root-tops the sheep take time getting used to them..

Most of the old timers used to keep them in the fields in pits, but a root cellar is easier to manage. Don’t bruise mangel roods or they won’t keep well in storage. Done right, they should hold well for about 6 to 10 months, though after about 5 months they begin losing their feed value.

In-the-field root pit, ready to cover.
In-the-field root pit, ready to cover.

Feeding Roots To Sheep

Most roots are too big to be easily eaten by sheep. So get the dirt off of them, and then slosh them in water.

Sheep do well if you simply chop the roots into 1-inch to 2-inch thick “chips” with a machete (the quickest way I know). Feed sheep all at once in a clean trough so that everybody gets some. A few feedings of this and they’ll come to it just like to a bucket of grain.

Start them at about a half-pound per head daily of roots, increasing to 2.5 to 5 lbs. Start feeding roots 3 weeks before the first planned mating time. Feeding a ram for a few weeks during breeding season won’t hurt him, if he’s not getting in excess of say, 5 lbs. daily. Feed all the other feedstuffs you would normally feed, except don’t use any kind of clover hay or pasture. Grass hay or pasture is excellent during this time.

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