Raising Sugarbeets in the Imperial Valley
As of the first of April, sugarbeet growers in the Red River Valley were still waiting for the snowpack to melt and the soil to warm up so they could head out to their fields and get ready to put the 2013 beet crop in the ground.
That’s just one difference between raising sugarbeets in Minnesota and North Dakota versus the southern edge of California. When one region nudges up against the Canadian border while the other rubs elbows with Mexico, there are bound to be many more.
Desert farming runs deep in Gary Mamer’s genes. On his maternal side, great-grandfather T.B. Shank came to the Imperial Valley in the early 1900s — right about the time irrigation water from the Colorado River first began flowing via canal over to the Valley. Paternally, the Brawley farmer’s area roots go back three generations. He jokingly describes himself as a bona fide “desert rat” — much more at ease in the Imperial Valley’s heat than he would be in more-northerly climates.
By the time he’d finished a couple years of college, Mamer knew exactly what he wanted to do for a career: come back to the Imperial Valley and farm. That was in 1978, and Gary and his dad, Gordon, farmed together for another 23 years. They were planting twin-row beets on 44-inch beds at the time. “That worked really well for later-season beets; but we could never make the ‘Top 10’ ” in terms of per-acre sugar production, he recalls. While his dad wasn’t too keen on moving to 30-inch single rows, Gary was adamant. They made the switch in the mid-1980s. “Lo and behold, we got ‘Top 10’ the first year out” — and never looked back.
The Mamer farm currently includes 560 acres of sugarbeets out of 2,100 total. His cropping sequence usually consists of three years of hay, followed by sugarbeets. He typically plants wheat (or occasionally Sudan grass) after the sugarbeets; then comes back a year later with another beet crop, after which it’s back to hay. “That’s the standard rotation on my farm, as I don’t do the ‘produce game’ (e.g., spinach, broccoli, onions).”
Farming in the Imperial Valley is, of course, a year-round proposition. There’s always some field operation going on, be it ground preparation, spraying, tillage or harvesting. For sugarbeets, everything works backward from a given field’s anticipated harvest date. “We get done digging on what we call ‘July 41st,’ ” Mamer quips in reference to the beet harvest commonly stretching from April into August.
Because they are planting their beet fields based on a projected “early,” “mid” or “late” harvest date, Mamer and his fellow Imperial Valley producers traditionally have used different varieties, depending upon each field’s digging timetable. A variety with superior root rot tolerance, for instance, typically has been planted for late-season fields since it can better withstand summer’s extreme heat. Currently, however, Mamer seeds most of his beet ground to a single variety — Betaseed’s BTS 4521R, a conventional variety — because he’s confident he can manage it to produce well across the various harvest scenarios.
(Valley-wide, about 6,800 acres out of the 24,500 total are planted to Roundup Ready® varieties this year. That percentage is expected to increase as additional agronomically strong Roundup Ready varieties become available for this market.)
Planting of the Imperial Valley sugarbeet crop normally begins in early September and can often stretch into October, depending on temperatures and periodic rain delays. But there’s a lot of field prep that goes on before the planter ever pulls into the field.
What’s the standard regimen at Mamer Farms? “Let’s say I’m going with beets after wheat,” Gary begins. As soon as the wheat has been harvested in June, “we’ll stubble disk the field once, then go in and chisel it to either 24 or 28 inches.” After a corrugator pass, the field is flooded, followed by another disking. That process encompasses 30 to 40 days.
Then soil samples are drawn to determine how much nitrogen and phosphorus will be needed for the beets. Mamer’s testing service typically pulls six samples from each field: two on the head end, two in the middle and two more toward the bottom.
Next the field is disked, tri-planed; then disked and tri-planed a second time. “Then we go in and list the beds. At that time, if we need some extra phosphate, we’ll probably put down 100 pounds of 11-52-0.” The beds are then folded over, “and I’ll generally put in some 10-34-0 at that time” along with a shot of Hydra-Hume.
“I run less fertilizer on the front (early) beets and the last beets,” Mamer adds. “With those late beets, the taproot will go find it in our soils, with the tile lines at six feet. Generally, too, they’ll pick up some extra fertilizer that has been ‘pushed down’ over the years.” Actual fertilizer rates depend, of course, on the soil test results. In-season leaf petiole sampling determines “whether we need to add a bit more in January or February.”
Beds on the early and mid fields are usually watered first. “We’ll set up the head end, ‘punch the pipe’ or run siphons, water it — and come back 10 to 15 days later” with a Lilliston cultivator pass, Mamer says. “Then, probably within a week to 10 days, we’re ready to plant that field.”
If a field is being planted in mid-September, the seed spacing will be significantly tighter compared to a field being planted in early or mid-October. Heat, salt and the periodic heavy rain are the reasons why. “We have to make sure we get a good stand despite all that,” Mamer points out. “We still have the salt later on; but the ‘weather side’ isn’t as big. So we can widen out our spacing — and the beets generally come up quicker, too.”
After planting, the water flows again for four to five days; is shut off for another three or four days; then gets turned back on “to make sure we have a good stand. Once we’re satisfied with the stand, we cultivate the beds. And if we have a bunch of weeds somewhere in the field, that’s also the best time to go in with a small crew and take them out.”
After watering back, “we’ll furrow pack out: take the weeds again with one side knife, making a little deeper furrow. At that point, if the field has some wild beets, we come in with a shot of Treflan and Outlook. Spraying that and ‘Lilliston-ing’ it up helps control the weeds.” If the weed population warrants, he can also incorporate an application of Eptam with the irrigation water.
“Then we’re off to the races. You just keep watering the field” until harvest nears.
That All-Important Water
Sugarbeet growers in the Imperial Valley do not presently operate under water restrictions. That may change in the future; but to date, “we’ve been able to have enough water at our discretion to use as we see fit,” Mamer says.
The high salt content of Valley soils is managed mainly through tiling and summer flood irrigation. “We make sure our tile lines are clean, chisel anywhere from 24 to 28 inches deep — and then do that summer flood,” he explains. “Once the water is running across the top of the field, it tends to push the salts deeper,” away from the beet growth zone.
“If you want to get rid of even more salts, you’re better off leveling the field,” Mamer continues. “Make it nice and flat, with a little bit of fall so the water drains off the lower end.” But, he adds, no one wants to drain off too much water, either. The Imperial Irrigation District operates gauges on field headgates and tailgates to monitor field runoff. “We’re always watching that. We don’t like extra waste water,” Mamer emphasizes. “There’s no reason to put more [salty] water into the [Salton] Sea.”
The veteran grower and board member of the California Beet Growers Association admits that the water needs of sugarbeets can be harder to gauge than some of his other crops — especially during the winter months. While some growers use more “high-tech” methods for scheduling irrigation, he still relies largely on “the old-fashioned way of pulling the sugarbeet out of the ground. If there’s mud sticking to it, don’t water. If the dirt falls off and the taproot is clean, turn the water on.”
As the season progresses and harvest approaches, however, “there’s a ‘fine line’ in keeping the moisture more constant. We don’t want cracks developing in the root. The beets get so big here that the cell walls on the outside can split and cracks develop. You don’t want water hitting that” and contributing to more root rot.
So, while water sets in February commonly run for 24 hours, “once we get into June and onward — especially with all the later-harvested beets — we’ll go to 12- to 14-hour sets.” Also, those sets will be conducted during the evening and nighttime hours.
Harvesting at 100+ Degrees
When you have beets growing for 10 or 11 months under ample irrigation and with lots of heat units, you’re likely to end up with some excellent yields. The average Imperial Valley yield this past harvest season was 46.5 tons per acre (a record), with sugar content just a shade under 16%. This is the environment, after all, where a new world-record beet field seems to be achieved every two or three years. On Gary Mamer’s own farm, one section of a 2012 beet field pushed 80-plus tons per acre.
Given the length of the harvest season and variance in beet root size from early fields to late fields, “we’re always adjusting the digger, up or down” Mamer allows. “We’re always asking our truckers, ‘How’s our dirt going?’ ”
Digging speeds are slow, especially on later-harvested fields with their exceptionally large beets. “Our taproots go pretty deep, so we’re careful not to break off too much,” he says. “With the size of our beets, we’re concerned about slicing them, too, so we’re always moving the row finder one way or the other to make sure it’s dead center.”
Because of the mass of foliage, Mamer runs a flail chopper through his fields a day ahead of the defoliator pass. “That chopper really takes off a lot of the foliage and helps the [defoliator] do a much better job,” he affirms.
And what about the dynamics of harvesting beets when temperatures hover well above 100 degrees? “All our guys are pretty spoiled these days,” Mamer smiles. “Everything has AC in it. So as long as you keep rolling, you’re fine. You’re going to break down occasionally; but we don’t know any differently.
“It is what it is.” — Don Lilleboe