Cover Crop & Strip Till Among Key Elements in Producing 47-Ton Beets Following Potatoes on Sandy Soils
Jason Meyers is old enough to have gone through some tough years, young enough to still be hungry for new challenges — and good enough to rank among the top growers of Amalgamated Sugar Company. And he does it all by operating in two locales far enough apart that he travels between them by airplane.
Jason Meyers in a 2011 Arena Valley sugarbeet field.
Meyers, who turns 40 this year, has been around sugarbeets his entire life. He grew up in southwestern Idaho, near Grand View, where his late father, Ray, farmed for many years in partnership with brother Cecil. At one point, the Meyers brothers were growing about 1,700 acres of beets.
“My own brothers and I weeded crops when we were kids and topped onions in onion seed fields,” Jason recalls. As his older brothers left the farm to go into the construction business, Jason continued to work alongside his dad and uncle — and loved it. “I always knew what I wanted to do: be a farmer,” he says. “Either that or a crop duster.” (While he never became an aerial applicator, Meyers has had his pilot’s license for nearly 12 years — and also is currently training in helicopter flight.)
At age 23 Meyers went off to Boise State University for a year and a half; but the call of the land brought him back to Grand View. A couple years later, he struck off on his own, moving about 30 miles east to the Glenns Ferry vicinity. That phase did not start out well. “I had 526 acres of sugarbeets, and about 40% of them blew out — three times,” he says. “I kept replanting and ended up averaging 23 tons at a $30 beet payment. The following year, I had about 28 tons at the same price.” The bottom line was not looking good, to put it mildly.
“Then I started to pull myself back out,” Meyers says, “and I’ve been ahead ever since.” How? One way was partnering with successful longtime growers like father Ray, brother Doug, Terry Ketterling (former chairman of Amalgamated) and Jack Post. “I’ve learned different things from each of them,” he affirms.
Also, “I learned to choose better soils. By then I was flying, looking over different fields during July and August to see if there was any evidence of erosion. Then, prior to the fall harvest, I’d go visit the landlords of ground I was interested in renting to see if it would be available for sugarbeets.”
Jason Meyers modified an old Ferguson 'Tilrvator' into a strip-till unit.
That approach took him about 70 miles northwest of Grand View, to the Arena Valley along Idaho’s western border. While sugarbeets are still produced up on the adjacent “bench,” they were nonexistent on the valley floor in recent years due to past dealings with serious wind erosion on the sandy soils. Quite a few landlords in the valley didn’t want beets on their ground since, in connection with their erosion concerns, this crop typically is the first one in and the last one out. “Some of them told me I was crazy coming over here and growing beets,” Meyers recalls. But he had been flying over the area for five years, was impressed with the uniformity of the crops being grown there, “and I was confident I could do the same with sugarbeets.”
Meyers was able to rent 1,000 acres for beets around Wilder for the 2011 season — roughly twice as much as his beet acreage back in the Bruneau and Grand View area, where he lives. The majority of last year’s Arena Valley beets went on ground that in 2010 had been in potatoes, farmed by Simplot.
Meyers knew that if he were to grow sugarbeets successfully in the sandy Arena Valley soils, he’d have to minimize the threat of soil erosion. On potato ground, that meant seeding a wheat cover crop as soon as possible after the potato harvest. First he disked the upcoming beet fields to chew up the potato vines and cover truck and equipment tracks. Then he had a fan truck blow on the wheat — about 50 pounds per acre on the earlier-harvested potato fields and a higher rate on the later ones, since he couldn’t expect as much fall cover crop growth on those. That was followed by a single-pass DMI ripper disk/roller harrow operation.
The wheat held those fields well over winter, and in the spring of 2011 Meyers came in with a 12-row power tiller — set up for 22-inch rows — and strip tilled nine-inch bands. The power tiller is an old Ferguson Mfg. “Tilrvator” with its alternate flails removed. He installed tunnel shields to keep the tilled soil from being thrown onto the inter-row wheat cover, and likewise added lines for fertilizer and humic acid. A centered stabilizer disk completed the unit. “It’s ugly — but it works,” Meyers quips.
On fields that were bedded up the prior fall, the western Idaho producer ran a front-mount Smizer bed roller on the planter tractor. Knockoffs on the Smizer remove the bed tops, and the roller firms the seedbed. “Plus, the roller teeth till the soil, so if you have any small weeds, they’ll be uprooted,” Meyers says. Press wheels mounted out front on the Smizer firm up the water rows on gravity-irrigated fields and also serve as guidance tracks for the tractor.
Specially designed planter press wheels create a “V” whose trough is one and a half to two inches below the field surface. Since only a half inch of soil ends up atop the seed, the system offers good wind protection for the emerging beets.
Meyers’ JD MaxEmerge carries eSet® disks from Illinois-based Precision Planting. “With today’s seed costs being what they are, the system has really paid for itself,” he observes. “I have extremely few skips or doubles. We can use more vacuum, and it has a special doubles eliminator.”
After the 2011 Arena Valley beets reached the four- to six-leaf stage, Meyers applied the first Roundup® treatment to kill the wheat cover and any other emerged weeds. The second Roundup application went on a month later, followed by a third lighter rate that was tank mixed with fungicide for powdery mildew control.
Meyers does use what might be called a “more-standard” strip-till regimen on some of his beet ground — i.e., those fields not following potatoes. He runs a Schlagel unit there, shanking in nitrogen and phosphate during the strip-till pass. He’ll later broadcast some sulphate and urea over the top as needed.
This Smizer bed roller is front-mounted on Meyers' planter tractor.
So how did Meyers fare in his first year of growing sugarbeets in the sandy soils of the Arena Valley? The average clean-beet yield across his 1,000 acres ended up at 47 tons, with sugar content running 16.3%.
Some form of strip tillage “is the only way you can raise beets successfully here,” Meyers firmly believes. “And not only in beets. They’re strip tilling corn on corn in this area now because they’ve lost so many crops to wind erosion.”
Bottom line? You know Jason Meyers and his Cessna 150 will be making regular trips between Grand View and Wilder once again during the 2012 growing season. — Don Lilleboe
Don Lilleboe is editor of 'The Sugarbeet Grower' and 'Gilmore Sugar Manual.'