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Sugar and Fodder Beets for Stock and Sucrose

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Presented by Erik Andrus Reviewed by Adam Dole

Erik Andrus reported on his findings from a Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NESARE) Farmer Grant to explore the market possibilities for production and sale of turbinado sugar from non-gmo “sugar beets” on his farm, Boundbrook Farm in the Champlain Valley in Vergennes, Vermont.   Although the project did not ultimately yield a sugar product worthy of marketing, Andrus believes there is potential for profitably raising field beets in New England.

Sugar and fodder beets (beta vulgaris), are commonly called field beets and fall into 3 classes:  mangels, fodder beets, and sugar beets.  Each class varies in sugar content and growth habit.  Mangels contain 4-6% sucrose and protrude shallowly below the soil surface with most of the plant’s growth aboveground.  They are grown mainly for livestock feed, contain more energy than hay, produce massive tonnage (20-40 tons/acre), and are easy to grow and harvest. Fodder beets contain 8-14% sucrose, grow more deeply beneath the soil surface than mangels, and require more effort to harvest.  Sugar beets contain the most sucrose, 14-20%, and tunnel deeply below ground and require considerable effort and/or equipment to harvest. Sugar beets are grown mainly for sugar production and can yield 20 tons/acre. 

Field beets are the same species as Swiss chard and are not turnips or rutabagas.   Historically field beets have been important to the economy mainly as a source for cheap alcoholic spirits.  Modern sugar beet production for sugar is on a massive scale with the majority of American sugar beets being GMO.

 

Nutritional Properties of Field Beets

 

Dietary Dry Matter

Total Digestible Nutrients

Crude Protein

(% digestible organic matter)

Neutral Detergent (% digestible organic matter)

Acid Detergent Fiber (% digestible organic matter)

Sugarbeet Pulp

26.1%

76.1%

6.6%

45.4%

27.4%

Whole Root

23.8%

86.8%

3.3%

15.4%

6.7%

Whole Tops

36.7%

66.2%

10.9%

50.8%

2.4%

 

Four varieties of non-gmo field beets were acquired, with considerable difficulty, from the following sources:  Shumway’s Giant Half Sugar Type, Beta Seeds experimental energy beet #2, Monsterbuck non-gmo deer bait (a cultivar marketed as a wild deer forage crop), and Scottish Fodder beet (fodder beet seeds in Europe are non-gmo by law).  The European seed was sent as a food supplement, a handy technique when shipping seed across borders.

In 2010 the farm achieved a 5-ton yield on ¼ acre.  In 2011 80% of the planted acreage was washed out by heavy rain, and the rest of the crop was abandoned.  In 2012 40% of the crop was lost to heavy rain, but the remaining crop was tended and harvested with the following results:

 

Non-GMO Field Trial Results

Variety

Yield/acre (tons)

Sugar Content at Harvest

Sugar Content of Extract

Notes

Scottish Fodder Beet

20.2

13%

17%

Easiest harvest

Shumway’s Giant Half Sugar Type

17.2

18%

22%

Strongest Germination

Monsterbuck Non-GMO deer bait sugar beet

14.6

17%

21%

Weakest all around performer

Beta seed experimental energy beet #2

18

18.2%

22%

 

 

Andrus advises field Beets should be planted as soon as the ground can be worked (April if possible).  Beets are non-determinant and so the longest season possible will produce the greatest yield.  Beets grow in a range of soil types, but require a well-drained location.  Beets can be planted with a grain drill.  For his project, Andrus planted rows 30” apart.  Thin rows to 1 beet per 1-1.5 row feet (by hand), unless a precision seeder is used.  Harvest in November for highest yield and sugar content.  Ideally a beet lifter is used for harvesting field beets.  Alternatively, a one bottom plow can be used to loosen beets for ease of harvest.  A garden fork or beet fork is another harvest possibility.

Andrus reports a three-person crew was able to harvest 3 tons/day, with 4 cubic feet of beets equaling a ton. Harvested field beets were stored for the winter in a clamp or mound covered in hay and sod.  Stacked hay bales were used to build the clamp.  This method of storage proved mainly acceptable for preserving beets of adequate quality for feeding to livestock. Field beets can be fed whole or cut to livestock.  Attempts to turn the harvested field beets into sugar and alcohol were not ultimately successful.  Persistent off-flavors and inability to remove beet pectin, were barriers which could not be overcome.   Field beet pulp was found to be highly palatable to livestock and could be a valuable co-product of field beet production.

Ultimately Andrus found field beets to be easy to grow but somewhat challenging to thin and harvest.  He was able to achieve yield and nutritional parameters within the national ranges using organic methods in Vermont.  Further work is needed to make sugar or alcohol production possible from New England field beets due to persistent off-flavors and inability to remove beet pectin.  Andrus feels there is potential for a profitable beet production system for sugar and/or spirits if these obstacles can be overcome.  Yields of 40,000 lbs per acre of field beets at 16% sugar lead him to believe there could be potential earnings of $6,400/A for sugar, $80,000/A for spirits, and an additional $4,000/A for beet pulp.  A video about his project can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4nK8lnZEA4

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