By Don Lilleboe
Being a sugar company agriculturist entails wearing a lot of hats. One of the most important is that of crop advisor, fielding growers’ questions and providing management recommendations on everything from choosing seed varieties to harvest timing and procedures.
But what if the agriculturist had to follow his own advice and put his recommendations into practice on his own field? Would he do things differently? And, would he be able to produce a crop as good as — perhaps even better than — that of the growers with whom he works?
Such was the premise behind the Amalgamated Sugar Company’s establishment of a program called “Beet the Pro” prior to the 2010 growing season. The idea was for some of the company’s crop consultants (formerly known as “fieldmen”) to essentially raise a crop of sugarbeets side-by-side with one of their growers. The grower would manage his beet acres as he saw fit; the crop consultant would do likewise on his portion (with the cooperating grower conducting the actual field operations, per the consultant’s directions). Then, at season’s end, each portion’s yield/quality and per-acre revenue would be tallied and the results shared with other growers and company ag staff.
The program, whose name was changed in 2011 to “Vic’s Challenge” (after Amalgamated’s president, Vic Jaro), is now entering its third year. From all accounts, it has been a useful exercise that has helped both the grower/cooperators and the participating consultants to fine-tune their respective best-management-practices approach to sugarbeet production.
“One of our goals was to show growers that what we’ve been recommending does work,” explains John Schorr, Amalgamated’s corporate director of agriculture. Some growers have a tendency to view company ag staff with a ‘You’ve never grown sugarbeets yourself, so why should you tell me what to do’-type perspective, Schorr notes. “So this allows us to say, ‘Here’s a demonstration field. Our guys did it the way we’ve been telling you to do it — and this is the result.”
That endeavor can carry some inherent risk, of course, as there’s the looming specter of “egg on face” if the crop consultant’s approach isn’t as productive. “We don’t ‘fudge’ the data,” Schorr emphasizes. “If the consultant’s results didn’t turn out so well, we put that up on the screen along with an explanation of what we believe occurred. But in many cases, we’ve also been able to show that our field staff does have the knowledge that can help our growers improve their productivity and revenue.”
Ray (left) and Al Saito, with Amalgamated Sugar's Bob Huffaker (right). Photo: Don Lilleboe
Bob Huffaker and Terry Cane are two of the Amalgamated crop consultants who have participated in the program. Both are based in the Nampa factory district of western Idaho/eastern Oregon.
Huffaker worked with two veteran producers in 2010: brothers Al and Ray Saito of the Weiser, Idaho, area. The Saitos had been dealing with low sugars, and Huffaker wanted to see if he could help turn that around. “They’ve always been very good growers — pretty much at the top every year in terms of yield, averaging around 41 tons,” he points out.
The low-sugars problem stemmed from nitrate levels. The Saitos often place beets behind onions in their rotations. Like other growers, they base their applied nitrogen rates on what the soil test shows. Still, something was amiss. The nitrates in the Saitos’ 2009 furrow-irrigated beets, for instance, averaged a very high 611 ppm across 227 acres, with a conductivity of 0.93.
For 2010, fertilizer was applied to both of the Vic’s Challenge field portions (“Saito” and “Huffaker”) based on soil tests. Huffaker suspected the nitrate problem experienced by the Saitos might have its roots in their irrigation water supply source. The Saitos preferred to irrigate with well water; Huffaker decided to go with ditch water “because I thought there might be nitrates in the well water.”
Lab tests showed he was right, indicating that every time the Saitos irrigated with the well water, they were adding about 7.0 pounds of nitrogen per acre. (The nitrates are naturally occurring in area wells, according to hydrologists.) “That’s why the nitrates and conductivity were so out of whack,” Huffaker notes. “And why their sugar percentage was low.”
The Saitos adjusted their 2011 fertilization as a result. While they were forced to go with well water again on that season’s beets (due to those fields’ locations), “they cut back on their applied nitrogen, realizing they were getting that extra N from the wells,” Huffaker explains.
“There’s no question the way we watered (in 2011) lowered the nitrates and raised the sugars,” says Al Saito. The brothers are now factoring in the extra nitrates in any beet field that’s being irrigated with well water.
Terry Cane collaborated with an Owyhee County grower, located about 100 miles southeast of the Saitos, during the 2011 season. They split a 32-acre furrow-irrigated field, applying similar fertility packages, based on soil test results. While they planted different varieties, the main differences, in terms of in-season crop management, fell into two categories: in-row seed spacing and irrigation.
Cane’s half of the field was seeded at a 4.0-inch spacing, while that of the cooperator went in a more-standard 4.7-inch spacing. Both acreages were planted on April 11 in 22-inch rows. By May 2, Cane’s beets had an average stand count of 247 per acre; those of his cooperator, 162. At-harvest plant stands (November 2) were 240 and 155, respectively.
While the majority of Owyhee County beet fields are under sprinkler irrigation these days, this field and a few other small and/or irregular-shaped ones remain furrow irrigated. Often, only alternate rows are watered throughout the season, due to the labor required to switch back and forth.
On Cane’s half of the Vic’s Challenge field, his goal was to alternate irrigations between “dry” and “wet” rows on a regular basis. “But after two irrigations, he (the grower/cooperator) could no longer move sufficient water down those dry rows; they just did not have a good furrow established,” Cane relates. “So we end up switching back.” Still, monthly soil samples showed that “even though we had only two irrigations down that dry row, I found better moisture all season long from one end of the field to the other, compared to where we didn’t do it.”
The grower’s half of the split field ended up with a slightly higher yield: just over 43 tons per acre, compared to Cane’s 42.5-ton average. However, the crop consultant’s sugars averaged 18.55%, compared to the grower’s 17.33%. At-harvest nitrate levels were 228 ppm (Cane) and 435 ppm (grower). Cane’s beets had an extractable recoverable sugar (ERS) of 13,741 pounds per acre, providing a gross revenue of $2,806.22. The cooperator’s ERS was 12,866 pounds, with per-acre revenue of $2,612.83 — $193.39 less than Cane’s.
“I think the difference (in ERS and revenue) was due to a combination of three things,” the Amalgamated consultant observes. “First, lower nitrates definitely helped. Also, I think the variety I used was a little better sugar variety. And finally, the higher population helped to better utilize the nitrates.”
Cane is working with the same cooperator again in 2012. Both used the same seed variety this time around. (The grower has gone with a higher seeding rate on some of his other acreage, given those fields’ conditions and the chances of having a lower final plant stand.) Cane does not recommend the 4.0-inch spacing as a general practice, however. “We did show we can do it successfully; but it’s not something I would advocate across the board,” he says. “Somewhere in that 4.5-5.0 spacing range is still preferable.”
One area Cane hopes to compare this year is irrigation intervals under furrow irrigation. He wants to see if watering the dry rows allows a lengthening of irrigation intervals without negatively affecting yield and quality. The benefits could be two-fold: (1) improved utilization of nitrates throughout the field, and (2) stretching out irrigation water in years of limited supply.
Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower