Staying On Top With Sugarbeets

Minnesota and North Dakota share a border, a river valley and extension research

Published online: Jun 10, 2024 Feature Allison Sandve, University of Minnesota Extension
Viewed 106 time(s)

Travel through pockets of west central Minnesota or the Red River Valley and it quickly becomes clear that sugarbeets are an essential part of the state’s agricultural profile.

Just how essential? Consider that 60 percent of U.S. sugarbeets are grown along corridors joining western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota. The sugar that winds up in our desserts and other treats? It’s about half from sugarbeets.

Where there are crops, there are challenges to growing them.

“University of Minnesota Extension gets very important at that point,” says Eric Watson, a second-generation sugarbeet grower from Renville. “That’s where the trials and the data come in and we really rely upon that science.”

Keeping Fields Healthy

Sugarbeets are sensitive to a variety of threats and are grown in four-year rotations, with a variety of other crops filling in the three years between plantings. Farmers aim for high-quality plants with strong concentrations of sugar in the root, which can weigh up to five pounds.

Extension scientists dig deep into the role cover crops play in soil conservation and production. They investigate the genetic composition of fungi and diseases that can wreak havoc with a sugarbeet crop. They look at how artificial intelligence can benefit crop production. And more.

Tom Peters, Extension sugarbeet agronomist, works at the forefront of weed science.

Across a variety of crops, herbicide resistance has made fields increasingly vulnerable to being overrun by weeds. Herbicide resistance occurs when weeds develop the ability to survive the very chemicals designed to prevent their growth. Overuse of herbicides is a key factor contributing to resistance.

“Herbicide resistance could decimate our industry,” Peters says. “It’s possible and we have to be conscious of that.”

Integrated Weed Management

Peters focuses on solutions based in integrated weed management. Some solutions remain in herbicides, with education on safe and appropriate use being key to field and crop health.

Other tools include the tried-and-true method of removing weeds by hand as early as possible.

Emerging technology includes targeting the weeds with electric shocks. In this method, generators towed behind tractors power the copper bar attached to the front from which the “zap” is delivered. The current destroys the weed’s vascular system, a complex network that connects tissue and transports water within the plant.

“It feels a little like ‘Star Wars,’” Peters says.

Some testing shows signs of regrowth, but the technology also cuts back on seed banks — the seeds stored in the soil — which spawn the next generation of weeds. More research is needed, but having another weapon to fight a foe as serious as herbicide resistance is a step forward.

Joining Peters on the cross-border sugarbeet team are Extension plant pathologists Ashok Chanda and Eric Branch. They all work closely with farmers and the sugarbeet industry to identify problems and stay ahead of them.

Sugarbeet farming is different from other commodity crops in Minnesota. Farmers join together as owners of three major cooperatives — one in west central Minnesota and two in the Red River Valley. The harvested crop is delivered to cooperative facilities for a complex process that transforms the bulky root into the sugar we recognize.

The sugarbeet team is one of three Extension agricultural programs that operate jointly with North Dakota State University. (The other two focus on potato and sheep production.) That puts the resources of both universities in their hands. Peters says, “The Red River boundary doesn’t affect how sugarbeets are grown, so why not have the same people working with farmers in both states?”

“I’d say 70 percent of the topics I work on came from farmers’ ideas and questions,” Peters says. “They’re listening and they ask amazing questions. And farmers are changing. We have a new generation taking over a lot of operations.”

Murdock area farmer Brett Petersen is part of the new generation.

“We work closely with Extension and I have to say without Extension, we’d be in trouble as an industry,” Petersen says. “Instead, we get to grow a good product, do it safely and in an environmentally friendly way more than ever before.”

Facts & Figures

2023 sugarbeet acres planted

-        1,129,000 in the U.S.

-        656,336 on Minnesota and North Dakota farms

-        Over 58 percent of U.S. sugarbeets are grown in Minnesota and North Dakota