Recognizing that, research is well underway to develop varieties and compile agronomic data for the envisioned energy beet production sector. In conjunction with the Green Vision Group, North Dakota State University is now in its third year of yield trials, testing under both dryland and irrigated conditions. Some sugarbeet seed companies likewise are heavily involved in testing their current materials and breeding new varieties for the biofuel industry.
The 2010 North Dakota yield trials produced some impressive data. Here’s a summary of the results, provided by Blaine Schatz, director/agronomist at the NDSU Carrington Research Extension Center and coordinator of the trials. Syngenta/Hilleshog was the seed company collaborator at Carrington and Oakes, while Betaseed was the collaborator at Williston, Dazey and Turtle Lake.
• Carrington -- Carrington is located in central North Dakota. Trials at the NDSU center there were conducted under both dryland and irrigated conditions. Sixteen different varieties were tested in 2010. The mean root yield in the dryland plots was 25.2 tons per acre, with an average sugar content of 19.2%.
Corresponding numbers in the irrigated plots were 37.8 tons and 18.5% sugar.
• Oakes — Oakes is in Dickey County of southeastern North Dakota. The 16 varieties tested under irrigation in 2010 at the NDSU Oakes station averaged 37.4 tons per acre with a 17.8% sugar.
• Williston -- Located in northwestern North Dakota, NDSU’s Williston station tested five energy beet varieties under irrigation in 2010. The average yield was 29.7 tons per acre, with sugar content averaging 17.7%.
• Dazey -- Dazey is in east central North Dakota’s Barnes County. Both irrigated and dryland trials were conducted on the farm of cooperator Jim Broten. Dryland yields averaged 31.7 tons; irrigated, 35.5 tons per acre. Sugar content of the dryland energy beets averaged 16.8%; for the irrigated plots, 18.3%.
• Turtle Lake -- Turtle Lake is in central North Dakota, about 50 miles north of the state’s capital city, Bismarck. Five varieties were grown under irrigation on the farm of cooperator Steve Knorr. They averaged 25.9 tons and 18.0% sugar.
In terms of sugar per acre, the top variety across all trial sites produced 16,044 pounds in an irrigated plot at Carrington. That plot yielded 43.1 tons per acre with an 18.6% sugar content.
Yield trials have again been established in 2011 at the above locations, along with two more: a dryland trial at Langdon in Cavalier County (northeastern North Dakota) and another dryland trial at Minot (Ward County, in the north central part of the state).
The bottom line with the yield trials to date is that very respectable yields and sugar contents can be achieved throughout North Dakota. “It should be noted that the performance of the energy beets at both the Turtle Lake and Williston locations [was] somewhat compromised by less-than-optimum planting date or harvest date,” Schatz reports. “Optimum dates would have likely resulted in an additional three to six tons per acre at both these locations.” The 2010 yield trials also underscored that, just like “regular” sugarbeets, energy beet varieties respond differently from location to location.
Syngenta and Betaseed have been breeding for the energy beet market for quite some time. Both have European parent organizations, and Europe has a longer history in this arena than does the United States. “KWS (Betaseed’s parent) has been breeding for energy crops and energy beets for over 10 years,” says Steve Libsack, director of business development and strategic accounts for Betaseed. “We understand that energy beets will require different growing and quality characteristics than a conventional sugarbeet. We are breeding for those traits, as well as breeding varieties that can be grown in many more climates around the world — everything from drought regions to tropical regions.”
Trent Wimmer, business development manager for Syngenta/Hilleshog, explains that impurity levels are a key difference between beets bred for energy use versus beets bred to produce sugar for human consumption. “Today, most sugar processors have impurity standards in place and demand high-quality varieties with low impurity levels,” he observes. “These impurities don’t allow the sucrose to crystallize, and the sugar is lost to molasses.” That then equates to lost revenue for the processor.
“For energy production, these same impurities don’t hinder fermentation or digestion,” Wimmer continues, “so it really opens up the possibilities for variety selection. It allows us to bring in performance and yield options.
“At the end of the day, though, we still need the sugar. So sugar per acre is a key driver.”
“Biotech seed has allowed us to decrease the learning curve for a new grower,” Wimmer points out. “Flexibility with weed control allows us to focus on other important agronomics, such as soil preparation, plantability and disease control. We spend a good portion of time on seed-to-soil contact and seed depth and spacing, with the goal of establishing a good stand.”
Growers in “new” beet areas will certainly be faced with some challenges. There would be the investment in a sugarbeet harvester, individually or in a group; altered crop rotations, requiring special attention to herbicide carryover and insecticide usage; fertilization; and, in general, the risks involved in growing an unfamiliar crop. “It certainly won’t fit into every grower’s operation in ‘nontraditional’ beet growing regions,” says Betaseed’s Libsack. “But there will be fantastic opportunity for many.”
That said, no one disputes the uncertainty that exists as of 2011. “We’re still in the ‘fact finding’ stage,” Libsack affirms. “But once we’ve proven that beets can be economically and feasibly grown for [ethanol] production — and at a lower cost than corn — I can see the industry moving ahead very quickly. I firmly believe that whoever builds the first plant utilizing beets will be breaking ground for a quick-to-develop industry.” — Don Lilleboe