Researchers Work on Growing Better Beets

Published online: May 06, 2019 News Brad Carlson
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Source: Capital Press

Like the growers who own their company, scientists at Boise-based Amalgamated Sugar are challenged each year to improve upon a beet crop that has performed solidly for most of the past decade.

This year, they are working on 12 research plots encompassing about 80 acres combined in Idaho and Oregon. Eight sites are devoted to variety trials. Work at the other locations centers on fertility and disease studies.

“Improvement of sugar beet quality and a more sustainable approach to sugar beet production” are among goals at all research sites, said Oliver Neher, manager of sugar beet quality improvement.

Yield, sugar production and disease resistance are studied. Scientists look at nitrogen and irrigation water usage, and how pest and disease impacts can be minimized.

The researchers seek good resistance to the curly top virus and multi-source rhizomania disease as well as the sugarbeet cyst nematode.

“If you don’t have curly top resistance or don’t make the level that we need, these varieties will not make commercial status,” Neher said.

Scientists also evaluate how plants perform through the growing season. Clarke Alder, an agronomist with Amalgamated, said he digs 5 to 7 feet down into the soil column three times a season to view and photograph how roots are developing, and how they behave after hitting a restrictive layer like clay or cinder.

Representatives of seven grower associations and Amalgamated comprise the Snake River Sugarbeet Research and Seed Alliance, which approves varieties and encourages seed companies to keep steadily improving them.

Amalgamated’s team of about seven scientists and four summer hires annually tests about 30 new, experimental, varieties for potential approval and 30 to 40 commercially available varieties.

“Our goal is to improve and to keep progressing,” Alder said.

Neher said variety quality has improved steadily in sugar content, disease resistance and yield since the industry about a decade ago moved to genetically modified varieties that resist herbicide.

Variety and cultural practices notwithstanding, “Mother Nature plays a significant role in the quality of the crop each year,” Alder said.

This year, weeds due to a wet early spring and insect pests surviving due to a mild winter figure to challenge the industry, he and Neher said.

“We are trying to give growers the best tools to help mitigate the effects of Mother Nature,” Neher said.

“We work to deliver high-quality, reliable results year after year to our growers,” he said. “The research is always trying to build and improve on what we did before.”