As you think about your various food plot crops for the upcoming season, you may want to include sugar beets as part of your plan.
Sugar beets are mainly grown in states of Minnesota and North Dakota, California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, Colorado, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, and Michigan. But what I learned in 2012 was that they can also be grown successfully for food plots in Illinois.
This picture was taken Sept 12, 2012 just a few weeks after rains of hurricane Isaac provided some much needed relief to the historic drought of 2012. These sugar beets were planted the first week of May—the same time I planted corn and soybeans at this location. The sugar beets survived the drought and this plot became a fabulous late season attractant and food source for the deer.
My interest in growing sugar beets began a few years ago after reading in one of my deer hunting magazines about how much deer love sugar beets. I learned that the tops and roots of sugar beets are both very attractive to deer. As I read more, my interest in sugar beets became even greater when I learned that an acre of sugar beets can produce up to 20+ tons of forage. That’s not a typo, 20+ tons/acre is correct. Granted this sort of production would be on ideal soils with ideal growing environments and “if” you know how to grow sugar beets. But I figured even if I could get 50% of the production potential, that would be a lot of deer food (10,000 lbs/A). Let me inform you though, it can be a challenge to grow sugar beets but the potential reward justifies the effort involved with growing them in my opinion.
So what are the challenges with growing sugar beets you may be asking. With my very “limited” experience I have growing beets, I would say that the number one challenge I encountered was weed control in the early stages of sugar beet growth. Seedling beets are very slow growing and can’t survive with much weed pressure because the weeds will simply out grow the beets and cover them up.
Picture of seedling sugar beets which are about a week old.
If you can clear this early season weed hurdle, then you are almost home free because once beets completely shade the ground, the beets become a very robust and hardy plant and can out compete many weeds. As an example their hardness, my May planted sugar beets survived the historic drought of 2012 under conditions that killed my adjacent corn plot before it was knee high.
2012 was actually my second attempt at growing sugar beets after a complete failure with trying to grow them in 2011. The reason I failed in 2011 was because I planted the beets in the wrong spot, could not control the weeds, and thus the weeds out-competed and over took the young beet seedlings within a couple of weeks. I learned a lot about what do and not to do with growing sugar beets in 2011 –this lead to what I consider a success in 2012, even under conditions of extreme drought as previously mentioned.
So why make the effort with growing sugar beets? The following is what I like about beets for deer food plots.
Sugar beet tops are very attractive The leaves have about 11 % crude protein and are also high in carbohydrates. Beets don’t require a frost to become attractive to deer as is often the case with brassicas and turnips. So expect the deer to start feeding on the beets much earlier than they will feed on turnips and brassicas. However, this attractiveness of sugar beet tops can be a double edge sword and the plot could be wiped early with heavy feeding. Thus, you may need to protect sugar beet plots with electric fencing if it experiences early feeding and your goal is to use to plot as an attraction during hunting season.
This picture was taken on October 8, of 2012. Depending on your goals for when you want food available, you may have to put an electric fence around your beets to keep the deer out of them. The deer on our farm started hitting the tops hard in mid October. At this time the beet roots were well developed—had they started feeding on them earlier, they could have wiped out the plot before roots were formed.
Sugar beets can re-grow tops. Once a sizable root is established, the beets have the capacity to re-grow new tops very quickly as seen in the photo below .
This picture was taken just a couple days after the deer had eaten the tops down to the root. New leaves were already coming out from the top of the root.
Beets are very cold tolerant Beets cold tolerance is much more than brassicas and turnips. Beets can tolerate much colder temps and still keep growing long after brassicas and turnips tops freeze. Beets will not freeze out during the winter and will produce top growth the following spring. Thus beets can be a food source from summer through winter and into the spring.
This picture was taken on December 9, 2012 with my trail camera and it shows how green the tops of the sugar beets were this late in the season. In contrast, the brassicas and turnips tops in the adjacent plots had frozen out more than 3 weeks earlier.
Tops are still green and attractive on December 28, 2012 as shown in the picture below. This is a good example of how cold tolerant the sugar beet tops are.
Beets are deer candy – This term gets thrown around a lot about food plot crops but with sugar beets roots having a sucrose content of 13-22%, the term “deer candy” may be appropriate. As discussed earlier, I did not have corn in 2012, but I did have standing soybeans, clover/chicory, brassicas, cereal rye, and oats. The deer walked through all these crops to feed on the beets.
This picture was taken on January 26, 2013, the beet tops had frozen down by then, but the roots remained as an attractive food source.
How to grow sugar beets- the devil is in the details!
Soils –Beets can grow in a variety of soils but seedlings are slow to get started so I would pick an area where the soil is pretty productive with good fertility to get the beets established as soon as possible. The less weed pressure there is, the better chances for success you will have. Sugar beets don’t like acid soils, so make sure the area you plant them has a pH of 6.0 or higher.
Beets are sensitive to most herbicides – Seedling sugar beets are very sensitive to many herbicides, so don’t plant them in areas where corn or soybean herbicides which have soil residual activity have been applied the prior growing season. RoundUp/glyphosate has no soil residual activity, so planting in areas which were treated only with glyphosate the prior season is a good choice.
Don’t skimp on fertilizer – sugar beets are “heavy feeders” which shouldn’t be a surprise given the tonnage of forage they can produce. You will need to add about 60 – 80 lbs of nitrogen per acre to the soil and work it in prior to planting beets.
Seed bed preparation – Till the soil and have a clean leveled firm seed bed. I assume that there are not many sugar beet planters in IL, so your best bet is to broadcast the beets with a broadcast spreader. You want to target a seeding rate that will place seeds at about 4 inches apart–don’t go too heavy. Keep in mind that sugar beet roots can get about 4-6 inches in diameter. Cover the seed to a depth of about 1/2 -1 inches—I accomplish this with a chain drag behind a cultipacker.
Seed sources: You will need to plant about 5 - 8 lbs of seed per acre. The following are a couple of vendors with reasonably priced sugar beet seed.
Welters Seed http://www.welterseed.com/
Deer Creek Seed http://www.deercreekseed.com/sugar-beet/
Planting time- plant in early summer, the same time that you’re planting corn and soybeans. Sugar beets require a full season of growth and full sun to have the potential to produce the tonnage I described above.
Weed control the biggest challenge– I’ve saved the worst for last. There are very few herbicides that can be used on sugar beets. Dual II herbicide may be sprayed over the top of sugar beets which have at least 1 true leaf. Dual II will not control emerged weeds but will provide residual control of certain weeds that germinate after application. Post emergence grass herbicides Assure II and Select can be applied post emerge to control emerged grasses. Note: Always read and follow all label instructions and restrictions be for making any herbicide applications.
Future considerations – Assuming you will be successful in growing sugar beets, do not plant sugar beets in the same spot year after year because of soil disease issues. Rotate an area out of beets for at least 3 years before planting back in the same spot.