Three years of research into growing sugarbeets without irrigation in western Nebraska yielded some intriguing results. But University of Nebraska researchers are not ready to recommend beets as a dryland crop for their region.
The data do suggest that dryland sugarbeets are a potentially viable crop, given deep soils with adequate stored water at planting time and a favorable growing season, according to Drew Lyon, extension dryland cropping specialist with the UN Panhandle Research & Extension Center at Scottsbluff. This is particularly of interest in the event that Western Sugar Cooperative would not able to contract with enough growers in irrigated areas, Lyon says.
Research was conducted at the UN High Plains Ag Lab (HPAL) near Sidney in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and also at two dryland Panhandle farms during 2009 and 2010. Roundup Ready® beet varieties were no-till seeded into winter wheat residue. At HPAL, beets were seeded into winter wheat stubble that had been harvested with a stripper header.
The study came about because several years ago there was concern that irrigated producers might choose to grow other crops instead of sugarbeets, and processors like Western then would have to look to dryland areas to have enough beets to keep sugar refineries running at capacity.
At that time, grain prices were relatively high and sugar prices relatively low. By the end of the study, however, sugar prices had risen considerably, and irrigated producers were eager to plant sugarbeets. Still, the western Nebraska research should provide some guidance if the relationship between grain and sugar prices were to return to 2007 levels.
Lyon and machinery systems engineer John Smith (now retired) completed the third year of research in 2010. Two locations were planted at HPAL each year. In 2009 and 2010, as noted, the research also was conducted at two on-farm locations — one near Gurley and the other near Hemingford. At each location, two different varieties were planted at four target populations.
Weather during the three years varied from slightly below-normal precipitation and slightly above-average temperatures in 2008, to a much wetter and cooler-than-normal year in 2009. The 2010 season started off cool and wet, but changed to warm and dry from July onward.
In the cool, wet conditions of 2009, beet root yields were higher than 20 tons per acre over a wide range of plant populations at Sidney. A severe July 2009 hailstorm at Dalton lowered what might have been yields similar to those at Sidney. Although the summer and early fall of 2010 were warm and dry, with a good start, beet yields were between 15 and 20 tons per acre across a wide range of plant populations at both Sidney and Dalton.
Sugar yields responded similarly to root yields across plant populations — except that the percent sugar was lower in 2009 than in 2008 or 2010.
Lyon points out that, from a research standpoint, there unfortunately were not many dry years — which skews the dataset and makes dryland sugarbeets look more promising than they probably would be over a 10-year period.
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