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Sugarbeets into no-till corn? Minnesota farm is home to test plot, field day

Vance Johnson of Breckenridge, Minnesota, has offered up a 60-acre field for five years of study on soil health and conservation practices.

Aerial view of field day
More than 70 farmers attended a field at the Vance Johnson farm north of Breckenridge in 2021. The 2022 field day will be July 13.
Wilkin County Soil and Water Conservation District
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BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. — “I like to try new things,” Vance Johnson says.

This summer, sugarbeet growers and others will get a chance for an up-close look at some of his experiments with a test plot just north of Breckenridge.

Last year was the first year of the 60-acre test plot with corn planted into what had been a wheat field the year before.

This year, Johnson is following the corn with sugarbeets, and his field will be the site of a demonstration day on July 13.

“Sugarbeets into corn — I don’t know what that’s going to look like,” says Kim Melton, with the Wilkin County Soil and Water Conservation District, who is working with Johnson on the site.

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She says she doesn’t know anyone else who follows corn with sugarbeets, but Johnson says he has done it routinely.

He also had experimented with reduced tillage farming and cover crops, some other aspects of the test plot.

The field is cut into three strips: conventional tillage, strip-till and no-till. Each of the three strips is cut in half again, with one half seed with cover crops and the other half without.

“The most challenging is going to be sugarbeets into the no-till,” Johnson says.

But like Melton, he is curious about what the crop residue will mean for soil health and yields.

“I’m going into it knowing what kind of problems I could have,” he says.

The test plot is just north of Breckenridge at the corner of U.S. Highway 75 and Wilkin County Road 16.

Melton said she was looking for a test plot a couple of years ago and was looking for a site with high visibility and easy access.

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Shortly after telling Johnson about her wish, he told her he had the perfect site, just north of the Breckenridge hospital.

Before long she had a long list of sponsors, including the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, Agassiz Seed and Supply to supply the cover crop seed, and Wilbur Ellis to fly it on.

Man crouching over farm field
Vance Johnson checks the depth of the seed after planting corn in 2021 on a field he is using as a test plot just north of Breckenridge, Minnesota. For 2022, the field will be planted with sugarbeets.
Wilkin County Soil and Water Conservation Service

For the first demonstration day in July 2021, there were speakers from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources Conservation Service. Melton said more than 70 farmers from three states attended.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is supplying soil moisture and temperature probes for the different strips among other data being collected.

Johnson volunteered the use of the field for five years, in part to satisfy his own curiosity. The sugarbeets will be followed by corn, then soybeans and back to spring wheat.

“I feel bad because I don’t pay him,” Melton said.

With the field being only 60 acres, the knowledge gained is worth it, says Johnson, who has a crop and weed science degree from the University of Minnesota.

From the first year of the test plot during the drought year of 2021, no-till and stip till sections were noticeably better than conventional tillage area, where the corn had problems with lodging.

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He said the strip till had some problem with lodging but the no-till had no lodging at all.

He said there was a subtle improvement in the corn with the cover crop.

Corn being combined
Corn is harvested on the first year of a test plot near Breckenridge, Minnesota, in 2021 on the Vance Johnson farm. Johnson volunteered the 60 acre field to test different conservation practices over five years.
Wilkin County Soil and Water Conservation District

Johnson is keeping track of the economics of the experiments to know what practices might stick in the Red River Valley.

Details on this year’s demonstration day are yet to be announced but it will start in the morning with speakers, including Johnson, with lunch available.

“It’s teaching us a lot about farming these clays in the valley,” Melton said of the site. “Our soils are so different from anywhere else in Minnesota.”

Related Topics: AGRICULTUREAGRICULTURE RESEARCHMINNESOTASUGARBEETS
Reach Jeff Beach at jbeach@agweek.com or call 701-451-5651 (work) or 859-420-1177.
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