Three years of research into growing sugarbeets without irrigation has yielded intriguing results. But University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers in the Panhandle are not yet ready to recommend beets as a dryland crop for western Nebraska.
But the data do suggest that dryland sugarbeets are a potentially viable crop, given deep soils with adequate stored water at planting time and a favorable growing season, according to Drew Lyon, Extension dryland cropping specialist at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center. This is particularly in the event that Western Sugar Cooperative is not able to contract with enough growers in irrigated areas, he says.
Research was conducted at the UNL High Plains Ag Lab (HPAL) near Sidney in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and also at two dryland Panhandle farms during the latter two years. Roundup Ready sugarbeet varieties were no-till seeded into winter wheat residue. At HPAL, beets were seeded into winter wheat stubble that had been harvested with a stripper header.
The study came about because, several years ago, there was concern that irrigated producers might choose to grow other crops instead of sugar, and processors such as Western Sugar Cooperative would have to look to dryland areas to have enough beets to keep sugar refineries running at capacity.
At that time, grain prices were relatively high and sugar prices relatively low. By the end of the study, sugar prices had risen considerably and irrigated producers were eager to plant beets.
The UNL research should provide some guidance if the relationship between grain and sugar prices returns to 2007 levels.
Lyon and machinery systems engineer John Smith, who is now retired, completed the third year of research in 2010. Two locations were planted at HPAL each year. In 2009 and 2010 the research also was conducted at two on-farm locations, one near Gurley and the other near Hemingford.
At each location, two different varieties were planted at four target populations.
The weather during the three years varied from slightly below normal precipitation and slightly above average temperatures in 2008, to a much wetter and cooler than normal year in 2009. The 2010 growing season started off cool and wet, but changed to warm and dry from July on.
In the cool, wet conditions of 2009, root yields were higher than 20 tons per acre over a wide range of plant populations at Sidney. A severe July 2009 hail storm at Dalton lowered what might have been yields similar to those at Sidney.
Although the summer and early fall of 2010 were warm and dry, with a good start, beet yields were between 15 and 20 tons per acre across a wide range of plant populations at Sidney and Dalton.
Sugar yields responded similarly to root yields across plant populations, except that percent sugar was lower in 2009 than in 2008 or 2010.
Lyon notes that, unfortunately from a research standpoint, there were not many dry years, which skews the data set and makes dryland sugarbeets look more promising than they probably would be over a 10-year period.