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North Dakota sugarbeet farmers work to save the soil

About a half dozen farmers in Walsh County, North Dakota, are conducting on-farm research trials on various methods including, minimum till, strip till and “green planting,” which is planting row crops, such as sugarbeets, into growing crops.

A man wearing a blue plaid shirt and blue jeans kneels in a field shows a clump of dirt to a woman wearing a gray shirt and white headband.
Daniel Vagle, American Crystal Sugar Co. Drayton, North Dakota, factory district agriculturalist, shows Melissa Carlson, Minnesota Wheat vice president of research, a handful of soil in a strip-tilled sugarbeet field, east of Minto, North Dakota, during the Walsh County, North Dakota soil health tour, held July 7, 2022.
Ann Bailey / Agweek
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A group of sugarbeet farmers in northeastern North Dakota are laying the groundwork for improved soil health in their industry.

About a half dozen farmers in Walsh County are conducting on-farm research trials on various methods including, minimum till, strip till and “green planting,” which is planting row crops, such as sugarbeets, into growing crops.

Walsh County, where farmers grow thousands of acres of sugarbeets, edible beans and potatoes, like other counties across the Northern Plains, has lost tons of topsoil from gusty prairie winds. In April 2022, the wind was so strong on Father’s Day weekend that the sky was dark with dirt and drivers had to use their headlights.

Potential benefits of the farmers’ work to mitigate wind erosion include reducing the amount of topsoil loss and contamination of water by soil nutrients and improving water absorption.

“We can’t allow the soil to move. We absolutely cannot,” said Tim Kenyon, American Crystal Sugar Co. East Grand Forks, Minnesota, factory district senior agriculturalist. ”If we don’t stop it, the government will.”

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Four men sitting in chairs and a man standing listen to a man speaking into a microphone.
Seated from left, North Dakota State University Extension agent-Walsh County Brad Brummond; Tim Kenyon, American Crystal Sugar Co. East Grand Forks, Minnesota, factory district senior agriculturalist; and Walsh County, North Dakota, farmers Jamie Bennington, Jay Gudajtes and Travis Uggerud, and, standing, Daniel Vagle American Crystal Sugar Co. Drayton, North Dakota, factory district agriculturalist, were part of a panel that answered questions about improving soil health in sugarbeets at a soil health presentation on July 7, 2022.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

While any method to reduce soil erosion requires increased management and an additional cost, it’s imperative that farmers figure out some kind of a way to mitigate the demise of the topsoil, Kenyon said.

“We are fools to think we can’t stop moving the soil in today’s world," he said. “We’ve seen some real benefits, some marginal benefits, but there’s always been a benefit.”

In Walsh County six sugarbeet farmers in his factory district are participating in a four-year project to study ways to manage soil health. Project leaders include Brad Brummond, North Dakota State University Extension agriculture agent for Walsh County; Kenyon; Daniel Vagle American Crystal Sugar Co. Drayton, North Dakota, factory district agriculturalist; Walsh County Soil Conservation District and Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Instead of working separately on projects, the organizations and individuals are working together to come up with soil conservation methods that other farmers can use.

“We decided that ego wasn’t going to be a part of this,” Vagle said.

Members of the agricultural food industry, meanwhile, are providing participating farmers with per acre compensation to offset the costs of employing the soil research methods.

Getting funding for the project was essential because it helped mitigate farmers' risk, Brummond said

”They are spending their money to do the things an innovator does. If the wheels fell off of the bus, we were covering them,” he said.

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Striptilled beets.JPG
Jay Gudajtes and Lee Gudajtes, Minto, North Dakota, sugarbeet farmers, purchased a soil warrior two years ago at a cost of $400,000 and began experimenting with strip-tilling. In the spring of 2022, they planted sugarbeets into corn stubble.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

While any method to reduce soil erosion requires increased management and an additional cost, it’s imperative that farmers figure out some kind of a a way to mitigate the demise of the topsoil, Kenyon said.

Farmers should not take a whole-farm approach to farming methods such as strip till and no-till, but instead implement them slowly, Vagle said.

“Adaptability is the key. Baby steps, that’s the key. Everyone starts with baby steps,” Vagle said.

Though not every farm should be 100% no-till or using other soil conservation methods, such as planting green, all of them have a field that could benefit from those practices, he said.

“There is no one-size-fits-all in the Valley, so we have to implement what works in our farming operations,” Kenyon said. “My focus is working with people not only to be good managers of their soil — which is their livelihood — and good managers of their pocketbooks.”

Being flexible already is the hallmark of sugarbeet farmers because each farming season presents unique challenges, and they deal with whatever challenges they are facing, Vagle said.

“It’s too wet or too dry. It’s too late or too early,” he said.

Depending on the conditions, weed control may be more complicated some years, which means it also likely will be more costly. For example, this year, broadleaf weeds got a head start on the sugarbeets planted into rye fields.

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“The management becomes so much more nuanced because you’re adding layers of complexity to the operation,” Vagle said.

There also is an upfront cost if farmers purchase equipment for methods, such as a strip till machine called the Soil Warrior.

Soil health 2.
A man wearing blue jeans and a dark blue polo shirt talks into a microphone while standing in a sugarbeet field and a man in blue jeans and a green polo shirt looks at the plants in the field.
Minto, North Dakota, farmer Jay Gudajtes was part of a field tour on July 7, 2022, and spoke about the 2021 corn stubble field he strip tilled and planted to sugarbeets in 2022 as Brad Brummond, North Dakota State University Extension agent for Walsh County looked at the field.

Jay Gudajtes and Lee Gudajtes, Minto, North Dakota, sugarbeet farmers, purchased a soil warrior two years ago at a cost of $400,000 and began experimenting with strip-tilling as a way to improve soil health and conserve moisture.

Gudajtes' in the fall of 2020 used the Soil Warrior to make strips in wheat stubble to prepare his trial fields, then planted sugar beets on them in the spring of 2021. Last fall, he used Soil Warrior to strip till one of his 2021 harvested corn fields, and this spring planted to sugar beets into the stubble.

It’s too early in the research phase to determine what the long-term benefits of strip tilling will be, but in the near-term, Jay Gudajtes believes that it has reduced his farm’s labor costs, saved time, improved yields and enhanced soil health.

On the downside, during cold, wet springs, such as this year’s, the stubble, which caught snow, was slow to thaw and retained moisture, which further delayed spring planting.

Meanwhile, weed control during wet years is challenging, Jay Gudajtes said.

“We’re going to continue to refine our efforts, and most likely, with improvements in our efforts, we will expand into additional acres, and if there is a way to utilize this on our whole farm, this is something we will take a look at,” he said.

Introducing soil health methods to the farm a step at a time is important, Vagle said. Another experimental method some sugarbeet farmers have tried that, so far, has impressed him is planting row crops, such as sugarbeets and pinto beans, into rye and wheat.

Rows of green rye grow in a field.
The photo of this field of strip-tilled rye, which had sugarbeets planted into it, was taken June 3, 2022, near Park River, North Dakota.
Contributed / Daniel Vagle

“Rye is the 'gateway drug' for overcropping,” he said. “If they can manage rye, they can branch out into other things."

Walsh County farmers who used the green crop method to preserve soil health tilled the field in the fall and created a good seed bed, then planted rye strips between them. In the spring, the farmers planted sugarbeets or pinto beans between the strips of rye.

Once the row crops are established and can withstand the wind without having leaves sheared off, the farmers can spray the rye, Vagle said. The optimum spray time also must coincide with the expected flush of weeds.

“In a normal spring, that will line up perfectly. This year because everything was late, these broadleaf weeds got a jump on it,” he said.

Vagle is confident that as sugarbeet farmers continue to experiment with soil conservation methods, they will develop the best methods to improve the soil health on their farms.

“The bottom line is, we get these practices started for the farmers,” Vagle said. Then farmers can decide how best to implement the soil conservation methods on their farms.

“Farmers are great innovators,” he said.

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: abailey@agweek.com or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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