Were there an “Association of No-Till Sugarbeet Producers,” the group probably could hold its annual meeting inside a single beet cart. Reduced-tillage beet growers? Of course, there’s a lot of that these days. Strip-till beets? Certainly. But bona fide no-till? That’s still a rarity, to be sure.
Three of that rare breed — Dana Berwick, Miles Knudsen and Doug Smith — farm cooperatively near the northeastern Montana community of Culbertson. While they own and rent ground separately, the trio shares labor as well as planting and some harvesting equipment. Knudsen and Smith have raised sugarbeets for a number of years; Berwick grew just his third crop of beets in 2012. Like its predecessors, it went in on no-till standing wheat stubble.
Adding to their operations’ uniqueness: all of Berwick’s beet acreage and some of Knudsen’s and Smith’s is under flood irrigation — their plentiful water source being the nearby Missouri River.
Why no-till beets? Sandy soils and lots of spring wind lie at the center of their answer. “One of the biggest challenges around here is getting the beets up and established,” Berwick remarks. “They’ll blow out in the wind or dry out in worked ground. Those two problems are alleviated with the no-till. The eight- to 10-inch high standing stubble keeps them from blowing, and that straw also helps keep the sun from crusting the ground. And, since we don’t start out with dry dirt, we’re not forced to ‘water up’ the beets as often.”
Plus, no-till saves them time and money, the three Sidney Sugars growers concur. “To fall prepare these fields is a major undertaking,” Berwick says. “It takes a lot of hours and a lot of diesel fuel.”
“You really can’t do any sort of tillage and end up with a prepared beet field for less than probably $50 an acre,” Knudsen adds. “By just doing a good job of combining [the previous grain crop] and spending some money on row cleaners for the planter, we’re saving that $50 an acre.”
Preparation of the next season’s no-till beet field begins at harvest of the preceding small grain crop. The key, they emphasize, is distributing the wheat or barley residue as evenly as possible across the field. The trio runs JD 9860 and 9760 rotary combines with choppers. “We don’t want a [flat mat] of straw,” Berwick states. “A good chopper turns it into dust, basically.”
Planting beets into standing stubble. Photo: Vanessa Pooch
The only fall field operation is a glyphosate burndown. Another glyphosate application goes on preplant in the spring, usually followed by a post treatment. “The introduction of Roundup Ready® Sugarbeets has made no-till much more feasible,” Berwick affirms. “It would have been a lot tougher, otherwise.”
The beets are planted at a slight angle to the standing stubble with a JD 1730 MaxEmergePlus equipped with Martin floating row cleaners. “We put down liquid fertilizer with the seed,” Berwick explains. “Then we have Schlagel closing wheels.” Along with the postemergent glyphosate treatment, split applications of nitrogen constitute the only other field operation prior to harvest.
That’s aside from irrigating, of course. As noted, while Knudsen and Smith have a mix of center-pivot and flood-irrigated fields, all of Berwick’s sugarbeets are under flood irrigation. “Normally, we allow the beets to come up on their own,” he explains. “That’s one nice part about the no-till: there’s typically enough moisture in that soil.” (The 2012 season was an exception, though, due to the very dry spring, so they did irrigate after seeding.)
A field border cut allows water to flow into this flood-irrigated field.
Berwick will usually flood his beet fields three times each season. “There’s a border every 60 or 90 feet, depending on the field,” he explains. The low-tech system allows the water to fan through the field, with the objective, of course, to provide an equal volume of water to the beets at the bottom of the field as those at the top. The timing of an irrigation set largely depends upon the length of the field and its soil type (mostly sandy, in Berwick’s case). “You basically just push water to the end of the field,” he says. Some of his fields call for an 18-hour set; others as few as three hours.
So how well does it work? While acknowledging the water-use efficiency disparity between a center-pivot system and flood irrigation, Berwick simultaneously points out that: (1) he’s not operating under water-use restrictions when he pumps out of the Missouri River, (2) he hasn’t incurred the cost of installing center pivots, and (3) his final beet yields and sugar quality have been on par with — or better than — the Sidney Sugars average.
To date, the Culbertson trio’s no-till sugarbeets have always followed wheat or barley. Now that they’ve switched their corn from 30-inch rows to 22s, however, they envision more beets following no-till corn, planted between the old corn rows. They’re also considering variable-rate seeding.
L to R: Sidney Sugars agriculturist Vanessa Pooch, Dana Berwick, Miles Knudsen, Doug Smith.
Is emergence slower in the spring with no-till versus conventional beets? Maybe a little, Berwick concedes. “But we’re seeding later up here anyway (compared to the Sidney area) due to frost — up to 10 days later in some years,” he says. “So that gives the ground more time to warm up.”
No-till beets aren’t the answer for most sugarbeet growers, these three Montanans understand. “But for us, the benefits have far outweighed any problems,” Berwick says. “We don’t have blowouts, we typically have enough moisture in the soil — and when we do water, that old-crop stubble definitely helps cuts down on evapotranspiration.” — Don Lilleboe
Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower