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Published August 06, 2012, 10:46 AM

Drought stress: not a bad energy beet test

For most commercially grown crops, droughty conditions aren’t welcome. But to a scientist studying the feasibility of a new crop — energy beets, for example — a year of drought is an opportunity.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

CARRINGTON, N.D. — For most commercially grown crops, droughty conditions aren’t welcome. But to a scientist studying the feasibility of a new crop — energy beets, for example — a year of drought is an opportunity.

“The 2012 season is frankly going to be a great season for us for this project,” says Blaine Schatz, agronomist and director of the Carrington (N.D.) Research Extension Center. “This is especially if you’re looking for the adaptation of a crop into a new production region. The year 2012 gives us something very different than 2009 and 2010, and — for most locations — 2011. We are getting some significant moisture stress. And if it continues, it will tell us what energy beets will do in parts of the state that are typically quite short of moisture.”

Energy beets for biofuel are intended for production areas outside of the Red River Valley where average precipitation amounts traditionally are significantly lower. The development effort is led by Green Vision Group Inc., a private consulting service to promote the use of beets for biofuel. The company is working on the development of 12 to 16 energy beet-to-ethanol plants across the state, each producing 20 million gallons per year. The group has selected a first plant site, but hasn’t announced it, and expects to start producing ethanol in the fall of 2014.

Green Vision has rounded up $1 million in funding from the North Dakota Renewable Energy Council and other organizations. Besides North Dakota State University agronomists supervising the beet trials, the university’s economists separately are working toward getting energy beets qualified as an advanced biofuel, which allows the crop higher levels of federal support. The Environmental Protection Agency has promised an answer on this in April 2013. The beets technically are sugar beets, but without the latest breeding focus on sucrose for table sugar.

The 2012 effect

This year, there are 14 energy beet demonstration and yield plots — five irrigated and nine nonirrigated — at 11 locations across North Dakota, Schatz says. The test plots in the Williston-area’s Nesson Valley, also are outside of the Yellowstone Valley area where sugar beets are produced for table sugar production.

“In 2012, with drier conditions, right now the beets are looking quite good,” Schatz says. For this time of year, researchers are seeing a little more separation in potential yield results, between irrigated and dryland beets. The two Carrington trials are in relatively close proximity — one on the station itself and one at the Hannaford site, on a farm owned by Jim Broten. Both have irrigated and nonirrigated trials.

Beets are vulnerable to certain diseases over time and researchers are looking for them in the Carrington energy beet trials. They’re testing some beet varieties that have the full package of disease resistant traits, and some that don’t.

“We have had beets for four years, and we may be able to observe some disease expression,” Schatz says. “The varieties we have here have differing resistance levels for the diseases. Nothing’s been observed yet to this point. As the diseases come in, we will be able to see differential responses among the lines.”

Schatz says it isn’t clear whether climate change trends are going to be making wet years more normal in the region. “Even if there were to be a real change within these seasons, even within that, there are cyclic moisture patterns. Even if this region of North Dakota were to have higher rainfall, as we’ve had since 1993, we still can have periods of moisture stress.”

So far, so good

Schatz began working with the Green Vision Group in 2009. The project started with trials at Carrington and Oakes, and has expanded to off-station, on-farm trials.

“The beets are doing quite well this year,” Schatz says. “To date, as we’ve looked at 2010 and 2011 data, where we’ve expanded to other areas across North Dakota, our yields have been a bit beyond my expectations. Our dryland yields are averaging 25 ton per acre, give or take 2 tons. The irrigated yields are averaging 30 to 40 tons per acre.”

Farmers are accustomed to relating experimental plot yields to their own farms. “They’re achieving (plot) yields on their home yield monitors — maybe not the whole quarter-section — but where they have generally good soil, they’re achieving identical yields to our trials,” Schatz says.

Droughty conditions will produce a little more separation between dryland and irrigated than in previous years. The Carrington station had good subsoil moisture going into the season, but the beets are tapping that out, Schatz says. The beets are doing better than soybeans had been, on similar ground with similar history.

Open questions

Schatz says several questions about research on energy beets remain unanswered.

One is how they’ll respond to different fertilizer levels. Traditional sugar beets are deliberately limited on nitrogen, for example, to optimize sugar quantity and quality. Fertilizer inputs are an important point for the crop’s status as an advanced biofuel.

“We need to be cognizant of our energy being put into the production of energy beets,” Schatz says. This also is a reason to space energy beet ethanol plants so beets only need to be hauled 20 miles.

“We’re going to take advantage of the fact that beets scavenge nitrogen that other crops don’t utilize and that, frankly, they don’t require much nitrogen to get a very respectable yield,” he says.

Central North Dakota doesn’t get nitrogen leaching that is found in irrigated sands, but with well-drained silt loam soils, it does occur, Schatz says. “We’ve had research trials in the past where we’ve seen nitrogen levels spike at 4, 5 or 6 feet down,” he says. That means nitrogen was applied in a wet year when the intended crop wasn’t in place to fully use it.

One of the big reasons to explore energy beets is the benefit to crop rotations. “One of the things we sorely lack in this region is a deep-rooted crop,” Schatz says. “We have corn, certainly … but corn doesn’t have the rooting depth we need, ultimately, for some of these rotations. Namely, we’ve lost sunflower in some of these areas, and because we’ve lost that deep taproot with sunflower, some of our soil health issues, soil salinity can become a problem. We would like to see more sunflower come in, but we’ve got bird problems, disease problems in particular.”

Deep-rooted dream?

A deep-rooted crop would allow farmers to use soil moisture and soil fertility that is otherwise not used by other crops. “It would use that excess moisture, yes, and that excess moisture is much of what’s caused the saline seep development,” Schatz says. A deep-rooted crop is a biological tool that otherwise requires tile drainage.

“Corn for most people is their deep-rooted crop, but we know the limitations of the fibrous root system of corn. It’s only going to go down so deep. A sunflower plant, a sugar beet plant with its tap root that goes much deeper is going to use water that might become excessive.”

Schatz says he thinks energy beets need a good five seasons of research data for farmers to have confidence in growing them and for the larger development of an industry. “The number of seasons we need will depend on the amount of contrast we see in a given time,” Schatz says.

Irrigation research includes developing a water use model for energy beets, as has been developed for other crops at Carrington and Oakes.

Energy competition

Schatz notes that energy beets are being tested in other areas of the U.S. — Louisiana, Kentucky, North Carolina and the Atlantic coast.

“This isn’t just the idea of Green Vision and a few people in North Dakota,” Schatz says. “This is something that has legs under it, I believe, because of the amount of ethanol you can get from an acre. The issue, as I see it, is who’s going to be the first to commercialize this in the United States.”

Given the success of the sugar beets in the Red River Valley and the success thus far for energy beet trials elsewhere, North Dakota could be a leader in the industry. He says this could be a new opportunity for economic development for growers and communities.

Some have also suggested that the beet-to-ethanol concept could be a technological backstop, in the event that the U.S. would change its sugar support policies. While that may never be needed, Schatz thinks it’s admirable that Green Vision is targeting the energy beet plants into small or mid-sized communities outside the traditional beet growing areas — to produce jobs.