New technology has beet growers relieved

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- Between rain showers, Dan Rosenfeldt, and his nephew, Brian, are thanking goodness -- or whoever else is responsible -- for the advent of Roundup Ready sugar beets.

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- Between rain showers, Dan Rosenfeldt, and his nephew, Brian, are thanking goodness -- or whoever else is responsible -- for the advent of Roundup Ready sugar beets.

The technology is new to the Red River Valley this year and will make weed control in much of their sugar beet acreage possible, or at least a lot easier than it would have without it.

This year may turn out to be a classic example of why it's valuable," Dan says.

With the frequent rains, farmers are having a hard time getting herbicides onto their crops in a timely fashion this year -- more than most years. The "window" for optimal application of the the so-called "micro-rate cocktails" of herbicides used on conventional beet seed is far smaller than it is when you're using Roundup Ready products. That could be huge this year.

"We've already contacted the plane twice on our conventionals, and we haven't even sprayed some of our Roundup Ready yet," Brian says.


And because of last year's drown-outs in wheat crops in Minnesota's Moorhead-Glyndon area, some of the fields needed some cleaning out.

"You can really get some weed pressure in those fields," Dan says. "Roundup Ready was really good news this year."

Two-thirds of the Rosenfeldts' total of 1,461 acres of beets are the transgenic type, and one-third are remain conventional. About 80 percent are on joint ventures, and 20 percent are owned by the Rosenfeldts.

Despite a 15 percent cut in Crystal beet plantings this year and more favorable potential profits in competing crops, the Rosenfeldts stayed constant with their beet acres by picking up some joint venture deals on beets.

"We've been watching the price of sugar, and thinking -- hoping -- it might be stronger," Dan says. "At $7 corn prices and $13 soybeans, beets may not turn out to be as profitable as other crops. You never really know."

Various sources have confirmed that beet share deals on the market this past spring were more favorable -- maybe even half of what they were a year ago -- as some operating partners opted for corn and soybeans. That left share owners with an obligation to get their stock planted by somebody.

Waiting, anticipation

The Rosenfeldts had anticipated the historic introduction of "biotech" sugar beets for nearly a decade. For the past several years, it seemed close, but just out of reach.


Beet byproduct and sugar users finally dropped their objections to the technology in the past the past years or so American Crystal Sugar Co. and other beet companies in the region and nation finally announced the switch to glyphosate herbicide-resistant seed in 2008.

Last November and December, Dan, 52, and Brian, 33, were ordering seed for the farms they operate separately, but with cooperating labor and equipment arrangements.

"They started out rationing (Roundup Ready) seed and then there seemed to be more coming available," Brian says.

Initially, the Rosenfeldts had studied the varieties available and there was a shorter supply of the ones they wanted the most. Originally, they had ordered three different varieties from Betaseed, but in the end, they planted one variety from Betaseed and one from Crystal Seed.

They always intended to plant some conventional beets, which require the heavier management with the micro-rate cocktails.

"We wanted to keep some of those, just not putting all our eggs in one basket," Dan says. "Some of these other seed companies have very high-quality varieties of conventional seed."

"We plant quite a few varieties, usually," Brian says. The pair match the variety to each field and its particular disease or weed history.

In February and March, certain environmental groups threatened a legal challenge against the use of Roundup Ready sugar beets, and the Rosenfeldts had wondered what they had gotten themselves into. They'd seen the groups block Roundup Ready alfalfa, so they knew the courts could have a huge impact.


"It's hard to understand when sugar beets are such a small acreage, while millions of acres are grown to Roundup Ready soybeans and corn," Dan says. He only became truly confident he'd be planting Roundup Ready varieties when they were delivered to the farm.

"I didn't think they could block it at that point," he says.

Roundup 'rithmetic

The Rosenfeldts acknowledge that the seed cost of Roundup Ready seed is about double the conventional seed. It's the per-acre costs where the biotech seed starts to show the real advantage.

Cost of seed would be $60 an acre conventionally, so Roundup Ready beet seed would be about $120, Dan says.

Officially, experts have pegged the difference in weed control at about $18 to $20 an acre, for total inputs for weed control, including the cost of seed.

Dan figures it this way: Roundup cost is about $7 per acre. They'll spray a minimum of twice, so that's $14. The Rosenfeldts spray at least twice to reduce the likelihood of resistant weeds developing.

"You try to kill any weed you're in contact with," Dan says.


To compare, conventional beet spraying costs about $15 per acre, and you do it three or even four times -- $60. (Application is extra, but about $2 an acre per trip is what the Rosenfeldts figure.) You need to cultivate conventionals for weeds at least twice, at about $5 per acre each time.

"That's probably minimum, given fuel cost increases," Dan says.

Of course with Roundup Ready, there is no need for migrant laborers. Rosenfeldts have two families that come up.

"There were three families last year, but because of Roundup Ready, only two will come up this year," Dan says.

"Fewer will come up this year, but the (migrants) we've had the longest will come this year," Dan says. "They're friends. We've grown up with these people. We've known them for 38 years. We've watched all of their children grow up, go up, go to college, get jobs -- good jobs -- and that generation won't be up here anymore."

"The total cost of getting to the point of having the weeds controlled is fairly close, and you hope the Roundup is a little easier on the beets too," Rosenfeldt says. "You make up for that a little on a higher yield."

Further, the risk of controlling weeds in a spraying "window" of opportunity is a major consideration. "This year is a classic example," Dan says. With the micro-rates, the weeds must be killed at very early stages, with a very narrow window of only a few days.

With Roundup, the weeds can be killed much larger. Roundup can be sprayed larger and still be killed with Roundup. Of course, there's no price tag on the stress.


As of June 4, the Rosenfeldts were checking one of their conventionally seeded fields, seeing the small weeds pop up and realizing it would need to be sprayed soon -- and probably by plane. In fact, it did rain and they ended up calling the plane the next day for a quarter-section of beets, costing $1,000 at about $7.50 per acre in application costs.

Chemical was extra.

The Rosenfeldts hope this year's crop will be better than last year's, which averaged 20 tons per acre in their area. The average for Crystal originally projected at 24.3 tons.

"It's an eye-opener how little you actually control in this game," Dan says. "The window of application is so much larger with the Roundup. We're thanking God we have Roundup, but it's still going to be a battle with the weeds."

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