Spring Management after Sugarbeets Left in the Field

The sugarbeet harvest came to an abrupt close on Nov. 9th due to a combination of American Crystal Sugar Company (ACSC) no longer accepting frozen beets to process, and the soggy conditions in the field resulting in sugarbeets with excess mud. This left many farmers with sugarbeets rotting in the field, leaving the question(s) of what is the best method of what to do with them.

Tillage for Beets Left in the Field

The best practice may be no-tillage, as they are uniformly distributed across the field. Beets left in the field more completely deteriorate over winter. In past years, tillage included using cultivars, chisel plows and disks. However, with facing the task of repaying ACSC, and crop insurance covering 60% of the loss, this might not be an option as it costs between $5 and $8 an acre. If you have not defoliated the tops, they will deteriorate rapidly and contribute nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil. Each ton of roots with yellow tops will tie up to 5-6 lbs. of nitrogen per acre of land. The nitrogen in the tops will become available in early spring. Sulfur deficiency is not very likely, but might occur early in the spring and disappear as crops root into subsoil sulfur supplies. Spring incorporation of tops and roots increases the available potassium in the surface soil. Some spring tillage may be required for plant establishment. A four-year study by the University of Minnesota Extension, North Dakota State University (Dr. Aaron Daigh), and Minnesota and North Dakota Corn and Soybean commodity groups, “set out to evaluate which tillage approach maximizes early-season soil warming and crop yields while at the same time improving soil health in the Red River Valley.” That study can be found here.

Which crop to grow after beets left in the field

Soybeans are the ideal choice for planting after sugarbeets. They have no nitrogen concerns or require special management. Corn can have a significant yield reduction due to sugarbeet syndrome (CFS), especially after harvesting in wet conditions, which leads to soil compaction. A banded application of phosphorus and zinc, as well as selecting a CFS resistant variety, can alleviate the problem. Corn will also require an extra 35-50 lbs. per acre as sugarbeets are very heavy users of the nutrient. More information about planting corn after sugarbeets can be found here. Nitrogen management is also crucial if you plant small grains after sugarbeets. Immobilization by the roots can reduce yields as small grains require almost all their nitrogen early in the season. Adding an extra 25-30 lbs. per acre will help to maintain yields. Sunflowers are less affected by nitrogen immobilization as they are planted later but may require some extra to improve yields. With all these crops, you should consider seeding an additional 10 percent to overcome establishment problems that may occur. A sidedress of nitrogen after the plants emerge will also assist with availability.

USDA Lowers Production Numbers

The USDA Economic Research Service’s “Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook” report issued on Nov. 15th states, “production for 2019/20 has been hampered by cold, wet weather conditions in most of the key sugarbeet-producing regions during the harvest season. Through November 3, the national sugarbeet harvest was only 70 percent complete—the slowest pace on record since 2000. This was mainly due to record-slow harvest progress made in Minnesota (70 percent), North Dakota (67 percent), and Michigan (55 percent).”

The USDA announced that it would take action to ensure that there is an adequate supply of sugar in the U.S. market. “Total inventories held by cane sugar refiners at the end of the year were 13.6 percent lower than the previous year, while beet sugar processors’ stocks were 11.4 percent lower.” The USDA noted that it intends to announce between Nov. 18 and Dec. 10 as to the quantity, type and source of additional sugar needed to ensure an adequate supply for the domestic market, avoid forfeitures and prevent or correct market disruptions.

Putting it mildly, the 2019 sugarbeet harvest has been challenging and has seen just about every weather event there could be during the growing season. This past week, ACSC began holding its district meetings with no formal announcement of the 2019 sugarbeet payment to farmers. However, it is expected to be less than last year by as much as 18 percent.