The Breidenbach sugarbeet legacy in northeastern Colorado goes back a long way — all the way, in fact, to 1905 when Frank Breidenbach began growing the crop for the new beet factory at Sterling.
So much has changed since then, of course. But the Breidenbach farming enterprise — now comprised of one of Frank’s grandsons, two great-grandsons and two great-great-grandsons — has continued producing sugarbeets and evolving with the times. Today, the family operation includes Stephen, his sons Dave and Jack, along with Dave’s sons, Don and Luke. Together, they farm 5,000 acres of Logan County ground, including 1,100 acres of sugarbeets, another 2,500 of corn and 1,400 in alfalfa. Ninety percent of their acreage is under center-pivot irrigation systems that utilize ditch and reservoir water.
One of the biggest changes in recent years has been the Breidenbachs’ transition to strip-till production of their row crops. They began strip tilling in 2008, and by the following year had converted 100% of their sugarbeet and corn acreage over to the system.
They’re hardly alone. As of 2009, about 30% of Colorado sugarbeet acres were under strip till; by 2011, the level was around 35%. In neighboring Nebraska, half of Western Sugar Cooperative shareholders’ acreage was in strip till as of two years ago; now it’s closer to 60%.
The region-wide trend has been largely driven by (1) less tillage and hence better conservation of soil moisture, (2) early spring wind erosion protection provided by the inter-row crop residue, (3) significant fuel savings and reduced equipment wear due to fewer passes through the field, and (4) the ability to apply fertilizer with the strip-till pass. It also has gone hand-in-hand with the ability to plant Roundup Ready® sugarbeets.
“I tell people that strip till, Roundup Ready and Trimble® (GPS) are, together, as big a change in farming as going from a horse to a tractor,” Jack affirms. “It’s a total system.”
Annual precipitation in the area averages around 14-15 inches, “so conserving moisture in the spring is huge,” Jack continues. “I think that we’ve probably ‘saved’ two inches of moisture by moving away from conventional till — and, the texture of our soil is so much better.” That in turn contributes to improved water infiltration, not only during the irrigation cycle, but when Mother Nature turns on the spigot. “We tend to get hard rains,” Jack says. “With conventional till, that water just runs off; but with this tillage system, it doesn’t.”
The reduced damage from wind erosion has been a huge benefit, he adds. “We get some vicious spring winds, and we’ve [previously] lost up to a third of the beets,” Jack recounts. Replants have averaged less than 5% the past three years, however, while plant stands, as well as final yields, have steadily increased. The Briedenbachs averaged 29 tons and 17% sugar last year.
The Breidenbachs follow both corn and alfalfa with strip-tilled beets. They use a 12-row Orthman unit pulled by a JD 8530, tilling to a depth of 8-10 inches. Liquid fertilizer goes down with the Orthman, while starter is added with the planter.
Because they graze cattle on much of their ground and likewise are very busy in the fall with row-crop harvesting, the strip-till pass is performed in the spring — typically late February or early March, as weather allows. On corn ground, they’ll typically till at an angle to the old corn rows. Planting usually gets underway in early April.
When farming conventionally, the Breidenbachs were performing up to eight or nine field operations prior to planting the sugarbeets — plowing, mulching twice, two land plane passes, and double bedding. “If it wasn’t dry enough, we’d go till it again to make sure it (the soil moisture) was all gone!” Jack quips, tongue in cheek. Now their entire program is comprised of the single strip-till pass, followed by the planter.
The Breidenbachs estimate that the combination of growing Roundup Ready beets under a strip-till system has bolstered their yields by around three tons per acre on average. “We couldn’t have done it (strip tilling) without the Roundup Ready,” Dave observes. “Because we couldn’t get [adequate] control from the previous herbicides, we’d still have had to cultivate.
“The [strip-tilled] seedbed is so much better than it was under conventional,” he adds. “We have overall better soil health, including more earthworms. And we have much less soil erosion from wind due to having that old-crop residue on top.
“It’s just a lot easier to get a good stand. I wouldn’t go back.” — Don Lilleboe
Left: For the past quarter century, the Breidenbachs have used a custom-built push-tractor system to keep trucks moving in sloping fields and wet conditions during harvest. “It’s safer and easier than hooking up chains,” Jack notes. “You can just hook up, push them through a wet spot, and release.” The disks on the back of the push tractor fill in the center-pivot unit’s deep wheel tracks prior to passage by the beet lifter and trucks.