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New Energy Economics: 2010 Energy Beet Field Days

Cole Gustafson, NDSU Biofuels Economist Cole Gustafson, NDSU Biofuels Economist
Farmers observing the trials were quite excited to see a new crop being developed.

By Cole Gustafson, Biofuels Economist

NDSU Extension Service

Last week, I participated in North Dakota’s first energy beet field days. Energy beet research plots were viewed at Oakes, Hannaford, Carrington and Turtle Lake. NDSU’s Carrington Research Extension Center and Green Vision Group, plus Syngenta and Beta Seed companies, were instrumental in organizing the field trials.

The energy beets in all of the plots were impressive. At Carrington, one beet was nearly 2 feet long and weighed 10 pounds. The representatives from each of the seed companies estimated current yields to be 20 to 25 tons per acre. Since energy beets typically add 2 tons per week until harvest, the yields in these trials should approach 30 to 35 tons per acre.

Last year, the difference between dryland and irrigated energy beet yields was modest. More variation was observed among the different genetic lines. This year, there appears to be more of a difference between dryland and irrigated trials. Unlike many areas of the state, the Carrington and Hannaford regions did not have excess moisture throughout the growing season.

Farmers attending the field days had several questions. In particular, they wondered what the fertility requirements were for energy beets outside the Red River Valley. Farm operators who provided land for the trials indicated that they fertilized as if they were planting corn. The seed company representatives cautioned about applying too much nitrogen. The tap root of an energy beet is almost 8 feet long and can seek out nutrients far lower than most crops that merely go down 2 to 3 feet.

Consequently, energy beets will mine nutrients in lower soil profiles that other crops can’t reach.

Farmers also wondered how energy beets would fare on high pH or saline soils. Again, the seed company representatives suggested that energy beets are a great rotational crop and can tolerate higher pH and saline soils relative to other crops. The deep tap root can bypass salinity that is concentrated in upper soil profiles.

There was a lot of discussion about row widths. While it is acceptable to plant 30-inch rows, the genetic company representatives encouraged farmers to move to 22-inch rows. Planting in 30-inch rows requires a closer spacing because the goal is to establish 50,000 plants per acre. Under dryland conditions, the energy beet canopies in 30-inch rows may not fully cover the soil between rows, which creates a potential problem for weed control.

In either dryland or irrigated production, energy beets should be planted at a depth of 1 to 1 1/2 inches. The small seeds need to emerge quickly before the stored energy is used up. The seed company representatives stressed that the important challenge facing energy beet production is seeding and getting a crop established.

With respect to rotation with other crops, NDSU researchers recommend a four-year rotation cycle. This length of time between energy beet crops is needed to break the cycle of plant pathogens. Even though energy beets were grown on lands that did not have beets raised previously, several plants did show signs of disease pressure.

Farmers observing the trials were quite excited to see a new crop being developed. Enthusiasm was high for the construction of an energy beet-to-biofuel plant at each site. In future columns, I will update plans to develop a commercial plant in North Dakota.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:Cole Gustafson, (701) 231-7096,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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