How to Grow Sugar Beets
Growing Sugar Beets In Your Backyard or Garden
In the agricultural industry, sugar beets are most commonly known as a commercial crop grown for sucrose production. Farmers grow the crop on large-scale farms for processors that turn the beets into sugar. On a commercial scale, they tend to be grown in the more northerly portions of the United States; one of the largest concentrations of growers is in the Red River Valley, located in eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.
While sugar beet fields may not be a familiar sight in your area, their end products are more common than you might think. In fact, sugar beets, along with sugar cane, are one of the leading raw materials for sugar in the United States—with sugar beets accounting for just a bit more than half of the nation's production.
But did you know that sugar beets are successfully grown in warmer climates, too? In fact, many smaller farmers and landowners across the country are discovering the benefits of this unique crop for uses that don't involve a sugar bowl. Sugar beets are an increasingly popular food plot choice for wildlife enthusiasts, who are finding that they tend to draw deer by the dozens. And sugar beets make a great crop for growers looking to add another feed source for livestock.
For growers new to the crop who are looking to get started, read on for tips on planting and proper cultivation, as well as information on feeding to livestock and hints on incorporating sugar beets into a wildlife supplemental food plot feeding program.
Planting sugar beets
Sugar beets are similar to the familiar red-rooted garden beet, but are much larger, reaching about 2 to 4 pounds when mature. They tend to have shiny, white roots, and as you might guess, a high sugar content, containing 13 to 22 percent sucrose.
To plant, prepare your seed beds in a sunny location with firmly packed soil. Sow the seed in slightly moist soil at a depth of three-quarters to 1.5 inches. Sugar beets adapt well to a variety of soil types, but you'll want to make sure the soil is well-drained and free of roots and large stones that can inhibit the roots' growth. Sugar beets prefer a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.5. Get your soil tested at a local Extension office and add lime as recommended to bring soil pH up if needed. It's best to apply lime early—at least 30 days before planting.
Virginia Tech Extension experts recommend planting seeds 1 inch apart in rows and then thinning the plants when they grow 4 to 6 leaves, spacing the plants 10 to 12 inches apart. Space rows 18 to 24 inches apart.
Sugar beets usually reach maturity in 90 to 95 days and grow best when daytime temperatures are between 60 and 80 degrees F and nighttime temperatures are between 40 and 50 degrees. Remember that sugar beets stop growing when they run up against a hard freeze, so plan to plant in late spring in northern climates, although you can plant in early spring or even late winter in more southern locales.
Sugar beet seedlings compete poorly with weeds, and even larger sugar beet plants may not be able to shade out problem weeds. Growers should mount an effective weed control campaign by hand pulling and spot spraying problem areas with herbicide throughout the growing season.
Root rots, powdery mildew and Cercospora leaf spot are the most common sugar beet diseases, while cutworms, flea beetles, wireworms, root aphids, white grubs and webworms rank amongst the most troublesome insect pests. Consult with your local Extension office for fungicide or insecticide recommendations if you suspect a serious problem.
Feeding to livestock
According to University of Wisconsin and University of Minnesota Extension experts, sheep and cattle ranchers can grow sugar beets as a forage crop. Cattle will graze fields and eat the leafy beet tops, although ranchers should note that cattle might eat small sugar beets they find and risk choking.
Sugar beet tops can also be used as silage, making an excellent source of protein, carbohydrates and vitamin A. Extension specialists recommend feeding sugar beet tops in combination with other types of silage.
Sugar beet pulp, a byproduct of the manufacturing process that turns beets into sugar, is also commonly fed to livestock and horses as an excellent source of fiber. For more information on feeding beet pulp to horses, check out this article by Dr. Martin Adams, Southern States equine nutritionist: Feeding Beet Pulp to Horses.
Planting for food plots
Sugar beets are also attracting a lot of attention for planting to attract wildlife—especially deer, which are purported to love the crop. In the fall, white-tailed deer start searching for foods with high sugar content, to build up their fat stores for the winter.
When planning your plantings, remember that deer prefer the natural approach. It's best to plant in small, scattered, irregularly shaped clearings sized from one-quarter to 2 acres, leaving natural-looking variation within borders between cleared land and forest. University of Tennessee Extension experts recommend that food plots for deer should make up 2 to 5 percent of your property, with a mixture of different forage crops.
For more information on supplemental food plots, check out this article on how to get started, along with a Southern States article series on creating and maintaining wildlife habitats: How to Get Started on Your Wildlife Plot.
Do you have any tips to share on growing sugar beets, or your experiences using them in livestock or supplemental food plot feeding programs? Share them with other readers below!