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Finding a niche in sugarbeets

Most growers in the Nebraska Panhandle use pull-type diggers for sugarbeet harvest, but self-propelled diggers have been catching on, and they’ve provided some advantages for one farming operation.

In the eastern part of Nebraska, harvesttime is signified by combines rolling through corn and soybean fields, and semiloads of grain making their way to local elevators or grain bins. In the state’s Panhandle, however, it’s a different scene in September and October. Beet diggers traverse fields, and trucks with side-dump trailers carry loads of sugarbeets to one of several sugar processors in the region.

Nebraska ranks sixth in the nation for sugarbeet production, and sugar production traces its history back more than 100 years in the North Platte Valley. The name of one of the towns in the region, Melbeta, even means “sweet beet” in German. “There have always been beets in this valley,” says Nick Lapaseotes, who farms with his son, Nicholas, near Bridgeport.

Most of the beet diggers seen in the Panhandle are pull-type diggers — pulled by a tractor, and unloading harvested beets into trucks traversing the fields right along with them. But the digger Nicholas Lapaseotes is operating is self-propelled — a Ropa euro-Tiger V8-4 XL, a 49-foot-long, yellow European-designed root crop puller with a 600-horsepower Mercedes Benz engine.

Although they aren’t the first in the area to use self-propelled machines, the Lapaseoteses have been using them for nearly 10 years. And while most still use pull-type diggers, self-propelled diggers have become more popular in the Panhandle.

“There are around six or seven self-propelled machines in the Panhandle area, compared to just a couple 10 years ago,” Nicholas says. “There's also a growing market for used Ropas.”

Primed for expansion
The self-propelled digger affords some advantages, Nick says. With its own defoliating and scalping units on the beet head, the self-propelled machine eliminates the need for a separate operator for a defoliator — the machine that typically runs ahead of the digger. Because the self-propelled digger has a beet hopper, there’s also no need for a truck to drive alongside the digger as it travels through the field.

“With a self-propelled machine, one operator controls the defoliator, the scalper and the digger,” he says. “One machine does it all, so you don’t have to worry about the defoliator doing a poor job before the digger picks the beet up.”

Sugarbeet growers are often required to plant on a multiyear rotation to prevent the spread of disease. While they typically field-finish once after harvesting to mitigate risk of cercospora and other diseases, the Lapaseoteses also follow up by drilling winter wheat as a cash crop in their rotation, or a cereal rye cover crop to hold the soil; their beet fields are rotated on a three-year cycle, with one year of wheat and one year of corn. So, being able to harvest sugarbeets on tougher terrain opens up more fields to plant beets for those two years in between.

“We’re able to rotate 100% of our acreage because we can travel over tougher terrain. With a pull-type digger, you need to have a truck with you. You wouldn’t be able to get a truck through this field,” Nicholas says, driving through a rolling, sandy field next to Courthouse and Jail Rocks in Morrill County. “We’re not cutting down on the amount of people we need for harvest, but we’re keeping trucks on the edge of the field rather than having them out in the field getting stuck."

That’s one reason the Lapaseoteses been able to increase their sugarbeet acreage in the last several years, since Nicholas came back to the farm after graduating from college in 2014.

“We’ve increased our sugarbeet acres quite a bit in the last two to three years, going from 1,500 to 1,900 acres,” he says. “We were able to get more shares in the cooperative [Western Sugar Co.] and rotate more of our acres. We’ve also expanded our farming operation in general. With more land available, we had the opportunity to plant additional circles to beets."

Good year for beets
After a rough start this year, the growing season ended on a good note for many sugarbeet growers in the Panhandle, including the Lapaseoteses.

In early May, straight-line winds swept through the area, destroying grain bins, upsetting center pivots and tearing up sugarbeet fields. “There were reports of 75- up to 100 mile-per-hour straight line winds. I’ve never experienced anything like that before,” says Nicholas. “It tore up the leaves pretty badly, and in some case wiped them out completely.”

The Lapaseoteses had to replant five of those fields in late May, which had been initially planted at the end of April. Setting the growing season back a few weeks typically means lower sugar content and yield. And while sugar content was lower, those replanted fields yielded above expectations.

“In terms of tonnage, this is one of the better fields I’ve dug this year,” Nicholas says of the field next to Courthouse and Jail Rocks — one of the replanted fields. “Large, but not huge beets — that’s what helps get tonnage up. With beets that are too big, too much of the top gets taken off going through the digger, so it’s really just a waste.”

At early harvest in late September, the beets in this field averaged 15.7% sugar and yielded 31.8 tons per acre. However, Nicholas notes if it weren’t for that windstorm, sugar content for the beets in this field might have averaged 18% to 18.5%.

Sugar content and tonnage are often considered inversely related. As tonnage increases, sugar content typically goes down. While sugar can range anywhere from 12% to 21%, it can still increase 1% every 10 days, from maturity (usually around late August or early September) until a killing frost.

Meanwhile, Panhandle growers also faced extended periods of 90-plus-degree-F temperatures, late-season hail events and a pest that’s becoming more problematic every year for the region — Palmer amaranth. “Weed pressure in certain areas, you’ve got glyphosate-resistant kochia. That’s something everyone deals with. Palmer is starting to be a bigger problem for us, too,” says Nick. “In corn, you can use other chemicals to control it. With sugarbeets, you’re pretty limited on what you can use.”

However, the Panhandle also received up to 5 inches more than the average annual rainfall — one of the reasons for this year’s above-average sugar content and tonnage.

“We’ve had good sugar content up to the mid-17s for September harvest, which is good for that time of year. Our replanted fields were in the low to mid-15s for sugar, and other fields were running up to the mid-17s,” says Nick. “Based on the last sample we took in August, it's looking pretty promising. So far, with beets that have been harvested, they’re tracking pretty close to what they’ve been tested for. We’re probably looking at a record crop.”


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