Foliar Fertilizer Helps Crown Beet King

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06 0709 Foliar Fertilizer

Sugar beets are a high nitrogen user early on, but if there’s too much N available later in the season, sugar content suffers. Because growers are paid on a sugar content basis as well as on tonnage, this can be a concern.

To manage this concern Dwight Perry and his agronomist Gerald Anderson, PAg., use an in-row, foliar and fertigation-based fertility program that has earned Perry the Beet King crown in his area, two years out of the last four.

Perry had been applying a typical N-P-K fertility program to his sugar beets based on soil test results.

“Lots of times they’d call for 100 pounds of N, and that’s expensive now. When Gerald joined Agri-Trend, he asked if I’d be one of his clients. I’ve known Gerald for a long time through other things and I couldn’t turn him down,” says Perry, who farms near Chin, Alberta.

“Gerald does his tests and we end up feeding micronutrients rather than ordinary fertilizers. The scary thing about beets is you have to have the N down by fall. Otherwise you have poor sugar extraction. You’ll have big beets but there’s less sugar in them. Gerald works to ensure all the N gets used up, but everything else is there for the plant.”

The field rotation starts with processing peas for Safeway, then sugar beets. The next year, Perry’s nephew seeds potatoes, then the fourth year is a cereal crop.

“Because we’re following processing peas, we don’t put any N on the field at all anymore. When we seed the peas we know we’re putting sugar beets on the next year, so we make sure the field is good and level for both crops,” says Perry.

John Olfert has worked with Perry for the past 20 years and has built most of the equipment Perry uses, including a 24-row planter. A squeeze pump and some plastic tubing, designed by Olfert, delivers liquid fertilizer and extra water to the seed row.

Anderson, who operates AgAdVenture Agronomy Consulting out of Coaldale, says Perry applies four gallons per acre of Alpine, plus micronutrients as required, according to soil and tissue samples from previous years. That goes on with the seed, dribbled in the seed row.

“To that he adds 16 gallons of water. The reason for that is, you’re seeding sugar beets at a depth of half an inch and quite often you’re not into moisture. So instead of going down to moisture, he’s creating what he refers to as a ribbon of mud,” says Anderson.

Perry has used this ‘ribbon of mud’ concept at various times through his farming career, where water is applied with the seed to help encourage quick germination.

“It’s an interesting idea, if only it was absolutely fool proof. It isn’t – we do add a lot of water in the seed row, but it still seems to dry out,” says Perry.

“We don’t pack the fields like we used to. With beets, we used to have the field as hard as a road. The drill would drop the seed in a trench, cover it up with dry dirt, up would come the water from below and the seeds would be sitting in moisture.”

“But that never happened in my fields. The idea of the stream of water is you’d make enough of a mud strip in the row that the beets came up for sure. Because we don’t get any irrigation until May 10th or 15th, we’d end up losing the longest days when we seed too late.”

Perry carries the water and fertilizer mixture in saddle tanks mounted on the tractor.

Anderson says following the in-row fertilizer application, when the crop reaches the four or five leaf stage, they come in with an early foliar – another application of Alpine plus micros.

“What goes on is two gallons of 28-0-0, two litres of Alpine, plus a micronutrient package. Then we monitor through the season, with most of the rest of the fertility going on through the irrigation pivots,” says Anderson.

“I usually pull at least two tissue samples in-crop and do them early enough that we can respond. One is taken in the middle of June that directs us for a month or so. Then I pull another sample in the middle of July.”

The sugar beets get monitored at least once a week. Anderson checks brix levels from the leaf, plus watches for disease, bugs and weeds. He also monitors soil moisture content with a soil probe that reads in percentage moisture.

“I have an irrigation software chart I created myself, for irrigated crops. I monitor that, decide how much water we need, then tell John and he makes it happen,” he says.

“We’re responding to the tissue samples according to need. I’ve used 10-10-10, 3-18-18, Alpine and other products. Whatever we see from the tissue sample, we look at what our options are, we may blend some different products, then we apply it through the pivots.”

In 2008, Anderson uncovered some research that suggests boron pulls sugars down from the top of the plant to the roots, to help created a better microclimate around the roots.

“We hadn’t been applying extra boron later in the season because sugar beets are a biennial and you’re not setting any seed. So we’d left the boron out of the late application. But I thought if we’re pulling sugar down, these guys are paid on both tonnage and sugar content. If we can bump the sugar content at the end of the year, that might be a good thing. So we did and he had better sugar content than average,” he says.

Perry admits he gets a little nervous when he writes a $10,000 cheque for micronutrients on 300 acres. “But for those beets, that was our total fertilizer program. And we do end up with high tonnage,” he says.

Anderson says the target yield has been 25 t/ac. each year with 20 percent extractable sugar. In 2005, they managed 28 t/ac, which qualified for runnerup Beet King in Perry’s growing district. In 2006 he grew 32 t/ac, which won the award.

“In 2007, we were hit with 85 percent hail at the end of July, applied a foliar immediately after and pulled off 27 t/ac. For 2008, it was a cool, wet growing season and his final results were 24.8 t/ ac adjusted with 17.173 percent extractable sugar.

That is compared to an average for his area of 20.29 t/ac and 16.57 percent extractable sugar. The overall averages for all areas were 21.14 t/ac and 16.44 percent sugar,” says Anderson.

Those totals made Perry the 2008 Beet King in his area, for two crowns in four years.

“We are as far as Tempest goes, but we’re only one of eight areas. We’ve never been close to getting the best overall. That’s usually someone from Vauxhall or Taber East, where they have 
higher heat units. But if we can beat the neighbors in Tempest, that’s a pretty nice deal! I don’t take any credit for it.

That’s Gerald’s doing,” says Perry. Anderson says in the hail year of 2007, with 85 percent hail damage on his beet crop, they put on a foliar package with the pivot to get the crop restarted and still ended up with 27 t/acre. A neighbor who was also hailed out chose not to use the same treatment, so it gave Anderson a chance to
compare results.

At the end of the season, I checked with the neighbor and his field yielded just over 20 tonnes/ acre. Dwight got over 27 tonnes. For a package that cost $14/acre, when the crop returns $40/tonne, it was a pretty good return,” says Anderson.

The agronomist says there’s only two things a producer can control – the cost of inputs and production.

“If we can get increased production at the same price, we’re winning. If we can get the same production at reduced costs, we’re winning. But if we can do both, we’re really winning,” he says.

Anderson says at their annual review in the fall of 2008, Perry confirmed that his total fertilizer bill was well below what it was prior to them starting this program.

“Not only is he winning production awards, which translates as good returns, but the best part is that his net return has increased dramatically because of the reduced input costs. We're winning on both ends of the program.”

Says Perry, “I wouldn’t consider doing anything different right now. I’m very pleased with what Gerald has put together for us.”


About the Author
Bill Strautman

Bill Strautman is an ag journalist with more than three decades of experience in the western Canadian agriculture industry. Originally from a mixed farm in north-west Saskatchewan, Bill has lived and worked in all three prairie provinces.

He currently owns a fifth-generation century farm east of North Battleford.

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