TABER, Alta. — Record yields and record sugar content are possibilities for the 2017 sugar beet crop in southern Alberta.
Despite a hot, dry summer with less than two inches of rain in many regions, the crop thrived under irrigation and harvest is underway.
“Irrigation was a blessing for us this year,” said Alberta Sugar Beet Growers president Arnie Bergen-Henengouwen.
“We used upwards of 14, 16 inches of precipitation through our irrigation systems, and that is pretty well the full allocation that the irrigation districts have allowed us.”
Though it’s too early to estimate average tonnes per acre, Bergen-Henengouwen said extractable sugar averages are 17.16 percent, compared to 16.95 percent last year. Total sugar content is averaging 19.16 percent.
This year’s harvest progress was delayed by snowfall Oct. 2 and now growers are hoping for three weeks of moderate temperatures without further rain or snow to complete the harvest.
“As long as the weather holds, we’re OK,” said Bergen-Henengouwen as he stood in a sugar beet field being harvested by Ian Harris. Growers in the eastern part of the sugar beet growing region are furthest behind, he added.
Just under 27,000 acres of beets were contracted this year through Lantic Sugar, which operates the sugar factory in Taber. Growers are paid primarily on tonnage, with bonuses possible if the price of sugar exceeds a certain level on the commodity exchange.
Bergen-Henengouwen said growers are anticipating payment at about the same rate as last year, which is approximately $53 per tonne. The number is approximate because final payment on the 2016 crop has yet to be received.
Yields this year are expected to be 30 to 35 tonnes per acre based on early harvest results.
A 30-tonne-per-acre yield at $53 per tonne would realize $1,590 per acre. If that averaged across the full 27,000 acres planted, it’s a $42.9 million crop.
Against that, growers pay for irrigation, energy costs to pump the water onto fields, $250 to $300 an acre for seed, labour costs estimated at $5 to $6 per tonne, and equipment.
Even so, the crop remains lucrative and growers are interested in expanding acres. That might be limited by contracts with Lantic, but the sugar beet association is looking at other uses for sugar beets and the sugar they contain.
“We’re always looking at options,” said Bergen-Henengouwen. “The appetite for the growers for production of this crop is quite substantial. The growers enjoy growing it.
“It’s a great rotation crop on this high value irrigated land. As long as rotations can be observed, we’re looking to grow the industry for sure.”
Among the options being explored are using beet juice for winter road treatment, ethanol and glycol production, beet protein extracts for health foods and manufactured car parts using beet pulp.
Growers use Roundup Ready seed grown in Oregon and are subject to the terminal use agreements that entails. Bergen Henengouwen said seed variety development has been a boon for the industry.
“The Roundup Ready sugar beet we feel has reduced our impact on the environment. We have fewer herbicide passes and way better weed control. The process with spraying that we used prior to Roundup (Ready seed) resulted in developing some resistant weeds, which were becoming troublesome to handle.
“This industry has come miles just because of the advancement in the seed. Our new varieties have produced tremendous yields.”