FARGO, N.D. - Sugar beet farmers with unharvested 2019 crops face the most difficult planting season in 40 years, but they have a secret weapon for spring planting-technology they never dreamed of in the past..

Mohamed Khan, an Extension Service sugar beet plant pathology specialist for North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota, based in Fargo, farmers have technologies they didn't have 38 years ago in 1982 when they were in a similar situation.

The North Dakota/Minnesota beet growing area includes about 650,000 acres of beets. About one-third of those weren't harvested. Even those that were harvested, the entire roots weren't taken out of the soil.

Those who couldn't harvest may be able to shift into "no-till" mode, planting between rows of beets still frozen in the soil. Beyond that, transgenic or genetically-modified organism crops will be the key for farmers who may find it beneficial to try a no-till planting option for the first time.

"Growers today are in a better position to manage the situation we have now, than we were 10 years ago," Khan says. "It would have been a tougher situation."

Not time to top

NDSU scientists and the cooperatives with farmers in this fix recommended that farmers "top," or remove the tops, of beets, to break down the leaves.

Most of the farmers, however, were not able to do this so will have both tops and roots to contend with in the spring, Khan says. Very few acres were fertilized last fall, so that will be done at planting time.

Farmers can "broadcast" wheat seed. Khan recommends not applying all of their nitrogen at once, instead applying some at planting time, and doing a side-dressing later. They should try to plant a little earlier than they normally would, if weather and conditions allow.

If there is an uneven seed bed, or a poorly-prepared seedbed, Khan says farmers may need to increase their seeding rate by 10%. This is to offset the effect of beets and leaves remaining in the soil, tying up available nitrogen.

Bean options

Research indicates soybeans and edible beans, will likely be popular options to follow unharvested beets, because the bean crops can fix their own nitrogen. Farmers will likely use inoculants to ensure the crop gets started. Wheat, and corn are other likely follow crops, Khan says. Khan urges adding 30 pounds per acre of extra nitrogen compared to normal, to counter the effect of beet residue.

Soybeans have an ability to fix their own nitrogen, so are a good option.

Planting subsequent row crops between last year's sugar beet rows is possible today due to GPS and RTK (real-time kinematic), with centimeter-level accuracy. Most beet growers plant on a 22-inch wide row spacing, so a 22-inch corn or soybean spacing will be a good fit.

With transgenic sugar beets, farmers who plant wheat, corn or soybean have follow-crops that are resistant to dicamba, glyphosate, and Liberty link crops.

"Because we have those technologies, now we can plant a crop and have good weed control," Khan says. "In the past all of these crops were conventional. Our herbicides-especially for some of the crops-were not very effective," Khan says. He credits farmers for putting money into agricultural research and then being quick to adopt technology when proven.

No-till shift

Sugar beet growers in Nebraska, Montana and Colorado have used no-till or strip-till techniques with beets for many years, to conserve moisture.

The technique is likely to become more popular in the Red River Valley, farmers often have a very short spring and tend tend to work up darker soils to warm them faster.

"I think in the years to come-based on research we're seeing already-more of our growers will go to either strip-till agriculture or no-till agriculture," Khan says. This is possible only because of herbicides and other technologies. A few Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative shareholders in the Rothsay, Minn., areas, already have made the shift over the past decade, with similar yields to conventional techniques. Those farmers have rocks in their fields, and without no-till, it became difficult to get the crop planted conventionally in a timely way, Khan says.

To plant beets that way, it takes an equipment investment and that may not be easy with difficult beet economics. It helps if all of the equipment is in 22-inch row spacing, Khan says.

American Crystal Sugar Co., based in Moorhead, Minn., used to plant 500,000 acres of beets, but this year cut plantings to 385,000 acres, because of consistently higher yields. Crystal's subsidiary, Sidney (Mont.) Sugars Inc., in the past planted 50,000 acres, but has cut plantings to 32,000 acres.

Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, based in Wahpeton, N.D., cut acres a bit after three years of having more than optimal beets. An estimated 20% of the roots remained in the field in 2019. "They tried their best, but they couldn't get it," Khan says.

Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in Renville, Minn., typically plants about 120,000 acres. SMBSC had inclement weather in the past three and four years. The co-op planted as late as mid-June and suffered excessive rains that cut yield potential. "We are hoping they will be dry and be able to plant their sugar beets and other crops in a timely fashion," he said.