Packed with vitamin C and fiber, beets (Beta vulgaris) are a powerhouse of fat-free, low-calorie nutrition. This sweet root crop, thriving in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 to 10, comes in a table variety destined for human consumption while sugarbeets provide about one-third of the world's sugar, according to the University of Arizona College for Agriculture and Life Sciences. Farmers use fodder beets as an economical alternative food source for their livestock. With so many uses for beets, finding signs of animal predators in the beet patch can be disheartening. Solving the problem is a matter of looking for telltale signs as to what kind of animal is eating your beets so you can take the appropriate measures to encourage them to look for a new food source.
If you raise livestock, such as cattle and sheep, mashed beets or sugarbeets provides a fiber-rich feed supplement. Some farmers also allow their livestock to graze for the leafy greens as well. According to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst Extension Center for Agriculture, growing their own feed crops, "allows farmers to extend the grazing season and be more self-sufficient…resulting in less off-farm expenditures and potentially greater monetary returns…" in addition to being environmentally friendly.
On the flip side of intentionally allowing your livestock to eat your beets, are the unwanted pests that damage your crop. Insects that can pose a problem for beets include leafminers (Liriomyza spp.), sugarbeet root maggots (Tetanops myopaeformis), cutworms (Agrotis spp., Peridroma saucia or Euxoa auxiliaris), flea beetles (Psylliodes punctulata Melsheimer), wireworms (Agriotes spp. and Limonius spp.), white grubs (Phyllophaga spp.), beet webworms (Loxostege sticticalis), sugarbeet root aphids (Pemphigus populivenae), grasshoppers (Melanoplus spp.) and leafhoppers (Empoasca fabae and Empoasca solana). These insects attack the leaf and root system, weakening the plants and causing crop loss and reduced yield.
In addition to insect infestation, beets can attract some mammals such as rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus, Sylvilagus spp.), voles (Microtus spp.) and deer (Odocoileus spp.) as garden invaders. The University of Massachusetts Extension Center for Agriculture reports that rabbit damage "can be identified by foliage that has been nipped off sharply, leaving no ragged edges." Pea-sized droppings in the garden are another clue that rabbits are visiting your beets. If large plant sections are chewed off, leaving jagged, torn surfaces on the stems, and you don't see rabbit tracks in the soil, you are looking at a deer rather than a rabbit invasion. Vole damage generally leaves tiny gnaw marks about 1/8 inch wide and 3/8 inch long at ground level, give or take a few inches above or below ground, in irregular patches and inconsistent angles. Mouse droppings, runways and burrows also give evidence that your invaders are voles.
Releasing or attracting beneficial insects in your garden reduces unwanted insect populations such as grasshoppers. You can hand pick or rinse off some limited infestations, such as root aphids, with water sprays. Insecticidal soaps or oils reduce leafhopper nymphs, but do not stop the spread of any viruses they carry. Purdue University Horticulture recommends monitoring your growing area carefully for signs of high insect populations that justify the use of insecticides. Sticky traps can help determine the extent of an infestation so you can decide if it is serious enough for insecticide treatment. Applying granular soil insecticides when you plant your beets controls sugarbeet root maggots, wireworms, cutworms and white grubs. For a severe cutworm infestation, apply a second round of insecticide after the seedlings emerge. Foliar insecticide works against flea beetles and webworms. Weed control and row covers provide some protection against leafminers. Rotate your beet planting area and avoid planting beets after a crop that had problems with pests. Sanitize all tools between working different planting areas and crops to avoid spreading an infestation from one area to another. Fencing or nuisance animal repellents are your best defense against rabbits, voles and deer.