Roundup Ready varieties boost yields; tight supplies boost prices
By DAVE WILKINS
When hay and grain prices soared toward record highs in late 2007, sugar beets were left in the dust.
Some sugar producers reduced their plantings in a switch to more-profitable crops in 2008. Those who stuck with the crop are now reaping a sweet reward.
"It's going to be a real good crop, a real good return this year," grower Rocky Hagan said Friday, Sept. 18, while harvesting early beets near Murtaugh, Idaho.
Beet production is up significantly this year, and thanks to tight sugar supplies, so are prices.
Idaho farmers are expected to harvest 5.56 million tons of sugar beets, a 54 percent increase from last year, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service. Net grower returns are also expected to be higher than last year because of a strong market.
Hagan said his early season beets have been yielding about 30 tons per acre, with sugar content in the 16 percent range. He's heard reports of sugar content as high as 17 percent already.
"For early beets, that's just tremendous," Hagan said.
Yields and sugar content should both increase as growers move into the regular harvest that begins in early October.
A portion of the crop (11 percent this year) is always harvested early to get the factories started and to reduce the amount of beets that must be processed in late winter when sugar content can begin to decline.
Yields for the Idaho sugar beet crop as a whole are expected to come in around 34.1 tons per acre, up from 31.2 tons last year.
U.S. sugar beet yields have continued to trend higher in part because most growers have switched to Roundup Ready seed varieties.
With the new technology, growers can spray their entire fields with Roundup, a broad-spectrum glyphosate herbicide, without injury to the crop.
It has reduced the need for hand-labor crews and has cut back on the total amount of herbicide used, Hagan said.
The large amounts of herbicides used to control weeds in conventional beets tended to stunt early crop growth, he said.
"With Roundup Ready beets, the plants just keep growing," Hagan said. "There's not any detrimental effect."
Monsanto, the maker of Roundup herbicide, increased its technology fee this year, making all Roundup Ready beet seed a little more expensive.
The extra cost is worth it, Hagan said.
"There's peace of mind in not having to find hand labor," he said.
About 176,000 acres of sugar beets were grown this year in Idaho, Eastern Oregon and Eastern Washington -- all under contract to Amalgamated Sugar Co.
The vast majority of the crop -- about 163,000 acres -- will be harvested in Idaho.
This year's larger crop represents a big turnaround for the industry. The 2008 Idaho crop was the smallest in terms of tonnage in 25 years, Amalgamated officials said.
Nationwide, sugar beet production is forecast at 31.3 million tons, a 17 percent increase from last year.
Staff writer Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls, Idaho. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.