Sweet Success

Best practices and new technology can help sugar beet growers hit the sweet spot when planting their crop.

By Marilyn Cummins | Photos By © / stevanovicigor

Sugar beets are very particular about how they are planted. Just ask Al Cattanach. “When compared to corn and soybeans, sugar beets are a darn wimpy plant when they’re in the seedling stage and trying to emerge,” Cattanach says. “They don’t have that strength to push through a deeper depth of soil.” That’s just one of the reasons sugar beet growers need to get everything right at planting time to earn top dollar for their crop.

Cattanach has been a sugar beet agronomist since 1975, first as an Extension specialist split between the University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University, then as head agronomist with American Crystal Sugar Co. Now, as a consultant in retirement, sharing best practices that have worked through the years, he says he sees potential for growers to earn even more per acre with the precision of new planting technology.

Best planting practices

Successful sugar beet crops start with really good seedbed preparation in the fall, Cattanach says, so that “all you have to do in the spring is go in there with one very shallow tillage to keep the moisture in that seedbed zone.” Next, he says, is choosing high-quality seed that has the right seed treatments for the conditions in a grower’s field, and high ratings for germination and seedling vigor.

Cattanach says target plant population is the next decision, and an important one that depends on variety, row width, desired planting spacing and more. For the most common row spacing, 22 inches, he recommends a target of from 35,000 to 40,000 healthy plants per acre that are taken through to harvest. With emergence rates ranging from 70 to 80%, maybe up to 90% with perfect seedbed conditions, sugar beet growers usually need to plant 10 to 30% more seeds than the final target population.

“Years and years of research support high target populations for sugar beets,” he says, because higher populations deliver on the three factors for which growers are paid by the sugar companies: on the tonnage, plus premium for high sugar content and for high purity in the beets. While tonnage may increase due to larger beets in lower populations, “almost invariably you’re going to get lower sugar content and lower purity with lower plant populations.”

Agronomically, Cattanach says, high populations make better use of nitrogen in the field, avoiding the negative effects of too much nitrogen: lower sugar content and lower purity. Also, “with a high plant population, you close the rows quicker to get a full canopy that covers the soil. This allows you to use the sunlight available in the long days of May, June and July, and it’s good for weed control.”

Planter prep and settings

Whether it’s tuning up an older planter or breaking in a new one before planting, Cattanach says “you have to get them in top operating condition, so you can plant that high-quality seed at the appropriate depth with a very uniform spacing.” As alluded to earlier, sugar beets require near-perfect planting conditions, including an optimum seeding depth of 1¼ inches. Deviate by more than a quarter inch on either side of that accepted ideal, and sugar beets either struggle to emerge or can run out of moisture.

Casey Bryl, an agronomist who worked with Cattanach at American Crystal and now is export sales manager for Amity Technology, agrees on depth. “If you start chasing the moisture down there at an inch and a half … if those beets have any type of crust to come through at the soil surface, they could have difficulty emerging,” he says. “But, if you get the beets just barely in moisture, they’ll germinate, but then they could die before emerging. So, it’s a very fine line when you’re setting the planter depth.”

The target for spacing—the distance between seeds in the row—is between 4½ to 5 inches, Cattanach says. “It’s very important to be as uniform between seeds as possible,” not only to utilize the sunlight well, he says, but also because evenly spaced, uniformly sized beets are easier to defoliate and lift when harvesting, for fewer harvest losses.

That’s where new planter technology comes in, Cattanach says, such as automatic down-force control. “I’m a firm believer in new technology that helps control planting depth,” he says. “If you can drop seeds all at a uniform depth, they come out of the soil at the same time, and you have more uniform growth across the field.” Setting seed meters correctly is equally important, he says, “to make sure that they’re reading the seed right and drop in just one at a time.”

In terms of high-speed planting, he says “time is money to these guys in the spring when they’re trying to get all their work done,” which has driven the use of planters with 24 rows and above. “I’m all for higher speeds for planting, as long as you don’t compromise spacing and planting depth.

“I think that those advances in planter technology,” he says, “are going to allow the grower, instead of getting 70% emergence to get 80%, or those with 80% now to get to 85% or even 90%.” If growers can achieve higher emergence rates, Cattanach notes, they can plant less seed to reach their target. “Sugar beet seed is very expensive. You’re looking at saving $20, $30, $40 an acre in seed costs if you can do that.”

Sugar beet trial results

Click to see more information about on-farm results.

In the Red River Valley region, sugar beet growers have been working with new planting technology designed to help improve the uniformity and quality of their crop.

Troy McKown, Western U.S. region manager lead with Precision Planting, says the company is learning how improved monitoring and sensing, seed metering, and furrow creation is impacting customers’ crops and their bottom line.

“Monitoring and sensing through the 20/20 SeedSense monitor has allowed the growers to understand what each row on the planter is doing in real time in four key areas,” he says. “Population, singulation, spacing and ground contact all have a significant impact on the development of the sugar beet plant.”

If population, singulation or spacing decrease, the size and sugar content of the beet can be greatly impacted, McKown says. Ground contact, or the consistency of the row unit meeting the depth setting without compaction, has everything to do with “setting the stage for optimal emergence, uniform crown height and plant development, impacting both sugar and harvesting quality and consistency.”

On-Farm Results

In a sugar beet strip trial comparing static down-force settings of 0, 125 and 250 pounds to the automatic down-force control of DeltaForce® from Precision Planting, DeltaForce provided a 2.3 ton per acre yield advantage by maintaining proper furrow development (uniform depth without soil compaction) and a $45-to-$95 advantage in gross revenues per acre at a sugar price of 15 cents/pound. During the trial, emergence timing was observed and recorded, McKown says. The sugar beet rows planted with DeltaForce had 23% fewer late-emerging plants than the rows with static 250-pound down force, and 19% fewer late-emerging plants than the 125-pound rows.

In trials at the new Swiss Future Farm in Tänikon, Switzerland, AGCO and its research partners are comparing sugar beet yield and quality when the plots are planted with varying amounts of fixed and automatically controlled downforce. The trials also compare the effect of two different plant populations on beet head diameter, tonnage yield and sugar quality, planted in 19.65-inch (50-centimeter) row widths. The European seeding rate is aiming at a target population of 32,000 to 36,000 plants per acre. The U.S. seeding rate targets a high population of 48,000 to 54,000 plants per acre. Both ranges assume emergence rates of 80% under good or 90% under optimum conditions.

Once the sugar beets from the Swiss Future Farm plots are harvested, weighed and analyzed for sugar content, results will be summarized and added to this article online.

Saving Time and Money

McKown of Precision Planting also reports that many growers who use either eSet® or vSet® seed meters from Precision Planting can hit their very specific plant populations with any size beet seed. They save on input costs by no longer needing to order and plant 10% more seed to compensate for inaccuracies in their previous meters.

Also, for the 2019 season, the SpeedTube® seed tube used in corn is now approved for use with Pro 200-size sugar beet seed and larger. “We’ve had a few growers testing the system the last two years, and we’ve seen speeds increase to 7 to 10 mph,” McKown says, compared to the 4 to 5 mph normal planting speed. “This allows them to plant quickly when the conditions are ready and right, rather than compromising on ground conditions in order to get the crop in.”

Casey Bryl, export sales manager for Amity Technologies, says his sugar-beet-growing younger brother is considering outfitting his row crop planter with the SpeedTube next season, especially to help eliminate dropping double seeds and increase their daily seeding productivity. Higher speed will be a plus, too: Casey says they watched their neighbor seed sugar beets at 8 mph with both SpeedTube and DeltaForce on his planter in 2017. “I think they seeded their soybeans and corn at something like 10 mph with the same planter.”

According to Larry Kuster, AGCO senior marketing specialist for seeding and tillage, next-generation White Planters™ VER (vacuum electric ready) planters, combined with dealer-installed Precision Planting technologies, give sugar beet growers the option of planting in rows widths of 15, 20 or 22 inches while providing the precise planting depth and population control needed for maximum crop yield and quality.