SKIL in Beet Agriculture
Sugarbeet is a biennial, primarily temperate climate, root crop. It is grown commercially mainly in the northern hemisphere, only Chile having a beet industry in the southern. Europe [including Russia and other CIS countries] and the USA are by far the largest producers of beet sugar. However, there are notable exceptions with so-called 'tropical' beet seed development now sufficiently mature for beets to readily be grown in warm, dry, alkaline soils which allows for a nearly continuous supply of beets to an operating factory.
Being a biennial plant, sugarbeet is grown from spring-sown seed each year. Its normal life cycle would be for the leafy growth to die down in the following winter and for it to regrow and then flower the following spring. In order to have the energy to regrow and flower it stores energy as sugar in its roots. The harvest therefore takes place in autumn, once the sugar has been accumulated.
SKIL has been involved in beet agriculture since 1988 and has worked for major companies as well as small farmers. We are able to assist in every sector of beet agriculture and can provide personnel with practical experience of all aspects of beet cultivation whilst understanding factory quality requirements.
Beet Field with Well-Developed Beets
Sugar beet is a useful crop for farmers, particularly when incorporated into a rotation scheme. In a good climate they can expect to achieve at least 60 tons/ha when the price they receive justifies the resources required to obtain such yields.
A sugar beet factory can only be operated efficiently if the quality of the beet received is suitable for processing. Cultivation techniques and material inputs must therefore be adapted to the climate and soil types of the region :
Not all land is suitable for growing beet so initial investigations are required to determine suitability and any remedial measures that may be required. Once the land is selected, and at every subsequent sowing, correct preparation is essential to ensure maximum germination takes place. A fine tilth with little stone content is needed to achieve this.
The use of the most effective variety or varieties of beet for the location is pivotal to the success of the crop. It is therefore essential to establish this with practical field trials and, in parallel, to optimise the chemical incorporation within the pelletising material coating the seeds.
Maximum yields can only be obtained when the spacing between rows and seeds within the rows has also been optimised. This sometimes means that existing drilling machines have to be replaced with more modern, high efficiency units.
Fertilisers of the correct type must be applied at the right rate throughout the crop if good yields are to be obtained. Similarly it is necessary to apply appropriate chemicals in order to control airborne and soil borne pests and diseases. Practical trials and experience are needed to determine the correct application procedures.
One's approach to harvesting depends very much on the regional climate which varies from continental [such as in the USA, much of Russia and China] through temperate [such as most of the EU] to subtropical [such as Egypt]. However, no matter what the climate, there are some fundamentals that apply throughout :
- sugar losses must be minimised;
- the factory requires beets in good condition and as free as possible from soil and green material;
- the factory requires a continuous supply of beets;
Harvesting of beets is mechanical. It is important that the machines are compatible with the seed drilling patterns. The beets fresh out of the ground are dirty and the beet top is low in sugar but high in other chemicals that are detrimental to processing through to sugar. The machines therefore top the beets then mechanically agitate and screen to minimise dirt and stones before transferring to the transport. That may involve a separate top scalper.
It is what happens next that is dependent on the climate.
This climate is probably the most challenging for beet agriculture because there is a narrow window between sugar accumulation and the ground freezing for winter. It would not be financially viable to only operate the factory during that period so the approach is to lift the beets quickly and store them above ground, the beets being delivered to the factory frozen because thawed beets deteriorate rapidly.
In colder climate, beets are delivered to long-term piling sites that will be located strategically for low cost delivery from the field to the processing facilities. The beets stored on site can be large, up to 50% of the beets supplied to the factory per season, depending on the factory site and the beet growing areas. The beets are cleaned again before entering these long-term storage piles. There are variations to the “pilers”, but the goal is put a clean beet into storage to minimize the development of storage problem from poor cooling. The pilers have again sets of grab rolls to tumble the beets to assist in dirt removal. The piles of beets can be as large as 200,000 tons. The dimensions and directions of the piles are set to facilitate good storage conditions be minimizing direct sunlight on the larger profile of the beets as well as ventilation and water shredding from rain events. The ventilation of the beets, whether natural or forced ventilation, are very important to beet storage, so the cleaner the beet the better, therefore harvesting protocols are established for weather related events and storage receiving optimization. The impact of sunlight and freeze thaw cycles often have the beets covered with a protective barrier that may as simple as a covering with straw to plastic coverings. The use of drone technology with infrared sensing are now the norm for monitoring the beet storage piles for localized heating and deterioration. However, the use of temperature sensors placed in the piles of beets as well as walking the piles for observation of re-growth and heat release is still widely practised and are considered important tools. The pilers are designed to minimize the beet fall height to limit damage and to have as many beets land on beets to minimize damage. The chipping of beets creates exposed surface areas for infections and increases respiration rate to repair damaged tissues. Pilers may be movable or fixed machines. These piles of beets may also have forced ventilation to maintain low respiration rates as the beets are still a living organism. The science and operation of forced ventilation has seen vast improvements that have allowed longer storage times and less deterioration of the beet. In very cold climates the beets may be intentionally frozen. A frozen beet ends respiration and further degradation of the beet quality from respiration and other negative biological activities. The frozen beets storage design have increased the amount of beet stored for a beet processing facility and allowed beet processing facilities to extend their season to 300 plus days in some locations. The frozen piles have been stored in large sheds with ventilation outside storage with covers and no covers.
In temperate climates it is assumed that the beets will be cool enough to be dormant but that they will not freeze, an assumption which occasionally results in serious losses during severe winters.
There is no in-field storage option in warm climates : the beets must be lifted and taken straight to the factory.
STAFF DEVELOPMENT AND TRAINING
The development of staff through parallel working is central to SKIL's philosophy but this needs supplementing with training programmes. This should be targeted for several levels of staff and might include the creation of a training centre and visits out of country. We consider the compilation of operating manuals as an integral part of training as well as being essential for good management.