FARGO, N.D.—Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., is studying whether to incorporate “field transfer” of harvesting sugarbeets into its campaign options. Proponents say it’s a way to cut stress and labor issues.
Minn-Dak allowed the practice in 2013 for the first time. Also called “field stockpiling,” It was one of several policy waivers for last fall because of heavy rains in early October, says Tom Knudsen, Minn-Dak vice president for agriculture. Five growers tried it, including Russ Mauch of Barney, N.D., a former president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, and then a Minn-Dak board member.
Mauch runs a 1,500-acre beet operation. He and his crews had harvested about half of their beets when two big, 2.5-inch rains came, in quick succession. When the policy was waived, Mauch field-transferred about 15 percent of the remaining beets—roughly 8 percent of his total crop.
The beets lay in the field for 24 to 36 hours before a pay loader was used to transfer them to a truck to be taken to the piling station.
Historically, a farmer and his crop insurance company are responsible for the beet quality until it reaches the co-op’s beet piling station. In this case, the crop insurance company is not responsible once the beet goes into the field pile.
Field transfer is used extensively in Europe. It has been tried in Michigan for the past few years and more recently for growers at Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in Renville, Minn. Both areas are in a pilot program with the federal Risk Management Agency. Under the pilot program, crop insurance protects the beets in the small field piles.
36 hours after lifting
With the field transfer option, Mauch’s crews hauled beets to the piling stations for 36 hours after the beet lifters were put away this year.
A side benefit of piling beets at the end of the field for several hours is that it allows the beets and attached mud to dry out. When the beets are bumped while picking them up from the field transfer piles, the mud falls off.
Mauch envisions the co-op would need to carefully monitor temperature forecasts and prevent field-transfer or stockpile techniques until the danger of heat is clearly not an issue.
The co-op agricultural staff has considerable control of the harvest. Minn-Dak or American Crystal Sugar Co. in Moorhead will stop the harvest entirely if the soil temperature is either too hot for the beets to store properly in large piles or too cold, allowing freezing in parts of the beets. Either condition can lead to excessive deterioration in the piles.
Typically, beets are handled only once or twice—either with carts or directly into trucks following lifters in the fields and hauling directly to co-op piling stations. Increased handling can increase respiration and hasten spoilage.
Mike Metzger, Minn-Dak’s new research agronomist, has conducted respiration studies on sugarbeets that have been field-transferred. Preliminary data from a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Fargo, N.D., indicate the beets are the same as conventionally handled beets that have been stored for 30 days before slicing, but the respiration rate is higher for the field transferred beets after that.
Minn-Dak officials have presented the idea at grower meetings, as recently as the end of February. The co-op board will decide whether to try the technique again in 2014, but there is no timetable for that.
“It could have a play,” Knusdsen says. “It’s a big decision, it really is. We have 300 shareholders, and I’d say there are probably 300 opinions on this.”
Mauch acknowledges that the technique faces some logistical challenges, including how the co-op monitors the process. But he says it could be worth it as a “tool” to be used conservatively, and only when the weather is right.
Dan Gowan, director of agriculture at American Crystal, says the co-op has studied the practice, but has not recommended it. He notes that soil conditions, roads and other factors are different in the Red River Valley than in Michigan, where it is more conducive. He says American Crystal doesn’t have contract language that prohibits the practice, but it is at the farmer’s own risk.