By growing energy beets, North Dakota growers could realize greater farm income as well as soil and crop rotation benefits.

Greater Farm Income

Energy beets are a sugar-type beet that are not produced for food, but are bred exclusively for the biofuel market by companies such as Syngenta-Hilleshog and Betaseed.

By 2020, the US must have 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels in the market with 21 billion gallons from advanced biofuels. Advanced biofuels produce 50% less carbon emissions compared to petroleum-based fuels, reducing the greenhouse gasses that cause global warming.

By being certified as an advanced biofuel by the Environmental Protection Agency, energy beet crops will sell for a premium price. The net return per acre of energy beets is expected to be several times higher than corn, soybeans and wheat. When grown in Europe and South America, energy beets have a lower market volatility than corn.

Rotational Benefits

Farmers who raise energy beets may see greater soil health because the tap root penetrates as deep as six feet, using nutrients, nitrogen and water that other crops don't reach. They also improve internal soil drainage.

Energy beets can be grown with great success in different soil types and conditions, since they are tolerant to drought and saline (alkaline) soils. And because the harvest fits in between beans and corn, the timing also complements other crops.

Energy beets would be grown on a four-year rotation to minimize disease and insect pests. The first crop of energy beets should be grown in 2014 to support the first BeetsAll Biofuel processing facility.

The ability to use genetically modified seeds will reduce the need for chemicals. However, when selecting fields for energy beets you should assess herbicides used in previous years for potential residue impact. Some common herbicides may carry over, causing injury to beets two to three years after application. (Refer to the NDSU Weed Control Guide W-253 at ndsu.edu/weeds for information on herbicide carryover.)

Conservation practices should be applied to protect seedlings from wind damage in the spring, and beet tops should be left on the field in the fall to protect the soil from wind erosion.

Requirements

North Dakota State University is running test plots to show how energy beets can be successfully grown in a variety of soils and conditions and to demonstrate yields and sugar content. The 14 test plots (5 irrigated and 9 dryland) are in 11 locations: Carrington, Hannaford/Dazey, Oakes, Turtle Lake, Williston, Langdon, Minot, Colgate, Litchville, Jamestown and Harvey.

About 30,000 acres of energy beets will be needed to support each processing facility and will be grown on contract with local growers.

The test plots also establish federal crop insurance for growers. An effort is underway over the next two years to establish a multi-peril crop insurance program for energy beets through the USDA Risk Management Agency.

While an investment in specialized machinery may be needed, the net return per acre from energy beets is still expected to be higher than from other companion crops in the rotation. A new six-row lifter - appropriate for harvesting 400 acres - costs about $85,000. For a lower cost of entry, used machinery is widely available for around $20,000. A detailed crop production budget is available upon request.