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Benefits of conservation management of sugar beet crop rotation

There are currently about 200 sugar beet growers in southern Alberta producing the only domestic source of sugar in Canada worth $150 million in 2015. This important niche crop has been included in irrigation crop rotation research since 1923, but the shift to growing potato and dry bean in rotation with sugar beet in the 1990s has prompted new research to ensure sustainable production practices. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientists have now identified the benefits of using conservation management techniques to produce sugar beet.

Their research compared conservation and conventional management of sugar beet production in 4 to 6 year rotations. The shorter rotation included dry bean, potato, and wheat, as well as oat and timothy (cool-season grass) in the longer rotations. Compared to conventional rotation, where the entire field is tilled, conservation management incorporated reduced tillage, cover crops, feedlot manure compost, and solid-seeded dry bean.

To maximize the extractable sugar yield from the crop, growers need to produce sugar beet with high root yield, high sugar concentration, and low root impurities that impair white sugar recovery. Compared with a 4-year conventional rotation, sugar beet root yield was significantly higher, by 11%, on 4 and 5-year conservation rotations, and by 8% on a 6-year conservation rotation.

Overall, integrating conservation management practices into sugar beet rotations led to significant yield benefits while effects on sugar beet quality were minimal. These findings, combined with advantages for other crops as well as soil quality, provide incentive for further adoption of conservation practices on irrigated land in southern Alberta.

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