Strong Start, Strong Finish / Michigan's Hagen Brothers Bank on Stale Seedbeds & Huge Beet Carts / By Don Lilleboe
In a successful sugarbeet operation, every phase of the production season is important — but none more so than a strong start and a strong finish. Brothers Clint and Brad Hagen know that as well as anyone else. For the past decade-plus, the Hagens, who operate Atwater Farms near Ubly, Mich., have bolstered their season’s “start” by implementing a stale seedbed system. More recently, they’ve bulked up the season’s “finish” by building huge beet carts used not only on their own farm, but also at nearby Michigan Sugar Company piling sites.
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Stale Seedbed Benefits
Their first year of planting sugarbeets into a stale seedbed was 1999, a time when the practice was still quite uncommon around Michigan’s beet growing areas. Weather the prior fall was very conducive, so the Hagens had plenty of time to prepare all of their upcoming 800 acres of beet ground.
Their stale seedbeds took a step backward the next few years, however. Fall weather wasn’t as cooperative as in 1998, and the Hagens weren’t able to get all the necessary fieldwork done prior to winter.
Then they refocused. Having experienced the benefits provided by a stale seedbed system (earlier planting, reduced compaction, better yields), they made some management changes — the most dramatic being a transition toward fewer corn acres and more wheat. When planting beets behind corn, they had difficulty getting all the corn ground worked properly prior to winter’s onset; and they didn’t get the desired beet emergence levels the next spring. High volumes of corn stalks and other residue translated into slower-warming soils, inconsistent seed depth placement and unsatisfactory beet stands.
“So we’ve been trying to stay with wheat stubble,” Clint relates. “That gives us a lot more time to work the ground and get it smoothed and leveled.” In 2010, for instance, their wheat harvest began on July 5. That allowed plenty of time to pull soil samples, do some land leveling, spread lime and perform a couple field cultivations to get the ground ready for planting beets this spring.
At 100-plus bushels per acre in 2010, the Hagens’ wheat yields have increased dramatically from a decade ago. The wheat crop “provides revenue at a time of year when we are scraping to buy the next fungicide application for our beet crop,” Clint adds.
The Hagens apply a lot of liquid manure. Large dairies in their vicinity of the Michigan “Thumb” annually produce millions of gallons of manure. “We buy some of that manure and put it on every acre that’s going into sugarbeets the following year,” Clint explains. Last year, they spread the manure in late July and early August. “We know we lose some nitrogen (by applying it that early); but at that time, there’s plenty available, the custom applicators are ready to go, and the [dairy manure] pits are full,” he notes.
The manure is applied at rates of 10,-12,000 gallons per acre. “So if we do get close to fall [before application occurs], we’ll maybe add 50 pounds of N credit from that.” The Hagens test all their beet ground each spring for N levels. “After the crop is planted, we’ll go with a 2x2 sidedress and then nitrate test after that,” Clint says. “The manure provides microbial activity in the soil, as well as many other nutrients besides the nitrogen,” he points out.
As of 2011, the Hagens are zone sampling by soil type. On one 160-acre field, the widest range found was from 12 to 91 pounds of available N per acre.
“Since we switched over to wheat stubble, both our stands and our yields have gone up,” Clint reports. “Seed placement is better (compared to when following corn), and the stand count is better.” For their 2011 sugarbeet crop, all but 40 acres will be on wheat stubble — “and those 40 will be on fallow stubble.”
Atwater Farms had just 75 acres of corn in 2010.
Compared to the ample residue remaining after corn, does worked wheat ground provide sufficient overwinter cover to protect against wind erosion prior to the beets’ emergence and early growth? For the most part, yes. “But if it’s a field we’re sure is going to blow, we’ll spread a quarter or half bushel of rye per acre in October, ahead of the field cultivator, and let that green up in the spring.” Once the beets are emerged and growing, they’ll apply their initial Roundup treatment a bit earlier than they otherwise would to kill off the cover crop.
The Hagens also seed rye behind their beets (one bushel per acre) to protect against erosion over winter. They’ll typically follow beets with dry beans, after having killed the rye cover crop.
Like other Michigan growers who plant into a stale seedbed, the Hagens view being able to plant earlier as the primary benefit of the system. In 2010, for instance, their beets were going in by March 22-23, with the final field seeded on April 1-2. Frost has not been a problem thus far. “The biggest issue we had [last spring] was that it got very dry after the beets were germinated and emerged, and some of them died off,” Clint says.
Another important benefit of their stale seedbed system, Clint affirms, is reduced field compaction. Along with avoiding spring tillage, they don’t make any preplant fertilization passes. “A lot of guys will ‘float’ on their fertilizer in the spring,” he notes. “We went away from that years ago simply because of the compaction. Now, we don’t see a track out there, other than where the sprayer travels.”
Matt Booms, the Hagens’ Michigan Sugar agriculturist, says that as of 2010, at least half of the beet acreage in his territory was planted into a stale seedbed. He expects the percentage to be slightly higher this year.
Left: A Hagen brothers ‘mega’ cart while screening and loading out sugarbeets at a Michigan Sugar piling site.
Big Carts Do Double Duty
If you think your beet cart is big, compare it to one that can hold upwards of 65-70 tons. That’s the size of three beet carts operated by Atwater Farms in 2010 — with a fourth smaller one (45-ton capacity) being built for the 2011 Michigan sugarbeet harvest.
The carts’ first job is to haul beets out of the Hagen fields, which in 2010 encompassed 1,150 acres. Then they do double duty, traveling to Michigan Sugar Company (MSC) piling sites near Ruth, Verona and Kinde. There they’re loaded with transfer beets heading off to one of the four MSC factories. The Hagen carts screened 570,000 tons of beets during the 2010/11 campaign before loading them into truck trailers for their trip to the factory. In the past two years, the carts have cleaned 1.2 million tons of beets “with very minimal downtime,” Clint reports.
The Hagens’ first contract with Michigan Sugar to clean and load out beets at the above-mentioned piling sites came about in 2009. Learning that the sugar company was exploring various ways of reducing tare levels in transfer beets, the brothers approached MSC with a proposal to bring a beet cart to one of the piling sites, load a couple trucks full of beets, and then measure the volume of dirt they were able to screen out. The company agreed, liked what it saw, and things progressed from there.
Frames and tanks for the three “mega carts” were fabricated at Richmond Steel in Pigeon. The Richmonds — Ken and Mike — also supplied the ferris wheels, conveyors, hydraulics, sprockets, bearings and other components. Hydraulics were installed at Atwater Farms’ shop, as were the first conveyor and ferris wheel cage. The second and third conveyors and ferris wheel cages were assembled at Minuteman Metal Works in Bad Axe.
The carts put on some road time during the 2010 early harvest. “During the early digs, we’d go dig our own beets; they (MSC) would shut us down; we’d drive the carts to the piling grounds; clean beets there; bring them home; and dig some more beets,” Clint recounts. Once all their acres were harvested, the Hagens placed the carts permanently at the three piling sites, where they screened and loaded beets bound for processing. They’ve been averaging between 5-6% weighed tare removal in their screening.
“We’re also responsible for removing all of the screen-out from the carts,” Clint relates. During the 2009/10 campaign, “we hauled the dirt to the fields and pushed it around with a blade.” That didn’t work so well, so for 2010/11 the Hagens purchased a Kuhn vertical beater manure spreader and spread the screened dirt across about 250 acres.
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