Sugarbeet production technology: What has changed?

Improvements in sugarbeet production include improved genetics, fine-tuned fertilizer applications, reduced tillage and disease management.

Having the opportunity to work for Michigan State University Extension in production agriculture for over 34 years, it has been exciting to watch the technological changes that have occurred. In the last 15 years, changes in sugarbeet production have been very dramatic. The new technology advancements have added incremental improvements in efficiency, yield and quality. The Michigan Sugar growers have rapidly incorporated the new technologies. Resulting in the last seven years, the Michigan industry has produced over 18 percent sugar content, and in the last 15 years has averaged a 0.5 ton per acre yearly increase in yield.

Sugarbeet seed improvements have occurred which includes genetics, seed processing, treatments and priming. Certainly the most remembered change was the introduction of Round-Up Ready seed, which revolutionized sugarbeet weed control. Genetic improvements in yield, sugar content and disease and pest resistance including nematode tolerance have also been dramatic.

The ability of seed companies to identify and process high quality seed has also improved. All seed is now pelletized and primed which allows better seed spacing, rapid emergence and more consistent stands. Multiple new seed treatments have been introduced that include systemic insecticides and fungicides that offer better control of seedling diseases.

Fertilizer applications have been fine-tuned, allowing producers to apply variable rate fertilizer and lime. Many nitrogen fertilizer products are now available that offer slow release or other means to prevent loss. The importance of fertilizer placement has been shown and most growers are using a two-by-two placement of starter fertilizer. Years ago, dry granular fertilizers were mostly used and now liquids have become predominate.

Tillage practices and crop rotations have also changed greatly overtime. Fall moldboard plowing was the normal practice and sugarbeets were planted following a low residue crop such as dry beans. This has been replaced with some form of fall chisel plowing or ripping with about half the crop following corn.

Advancements made in planting equipment have allowed us to plant sugarbeets successfully in high residue corn stalks or cover crops. Not only is this good soil conservation practice, but makes sugarbeet blowouts much less frequent. Stale seed planting, reduced secondary tillage and no cultivation are now normal practices.

Disease and pest management in sugarbeets has also changed dramatically. Growers are now able to use BEETcast computer modeling to better time spray applications for control of Cercospora leaf spot. Rhizoctonia can now be managed through variety selection and applications of Quadris in-furrow or foliar.

Sugarbeet cyst nematodes used to only be managed by long rotations. Today, nematode-tolerant varieties along with planting of oilseed radish as a trap crop have brought poor producing fields back to profitability.

RTK, smart phones and harvesting equipment have all been relatively recent technology changes. RTK technology has allowed growers to precisely yield map fields, apply fertilizer along with allowing operation of equipment through auto-steer. The Internet and its availability by smart phones and tablets have made information available at your fingertips at any time of the day or night. This technology has revolutionized agriculture and will continue for the foreseeable future.

Significant improvements have been made to all sugarbeet harvesting equipment by reducing tare and increasing harvest efficiency. Self-propelled sugarbeet harvesters are now commonplace and sugarbeets are commonly placed in clamps on the end of the fields.

In the future, technological improvements in production and equipment are expected to continue to arrive at a steady pace. Often these improvements may only benefit sugarbeet production in small increments. However, implementing a number of small changes in combination will result in significant impacts that will improve productivity, profitability and efficiency.

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