Research and Demonstration of Minimum Tillage and Optimum Water Management in Sugarbeet Production in Eastern Montana

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2016: $247,410.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2019
Grant Recipient: Montana State University
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Chengci Chen
Montana State University

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: sugarbeets


  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, on-farm/ranch research
  • Production Systems: general crop production

    Proposal abstract:

    Montana ranks 6th in the nation in sugarbeet production. The sugar industry in eastern Montana (and western North Dakota) contributes substantially to the regional economy. As assessed by Bangsund et al. in 2011, total direct economic impacts of sugarbeet production, processing, and marketing in Montana and North Dakota were estimated at $73.9 million in fiscal 2011. Tax collections generated by the sugarbeet industry from sales and use, personal income, and corporate income taxes in the two-state region was estimated at $1.8 million in fiscal 2011. Sidney Sugars, Inc. in eastern Montana employed an equivalent of 186 full-time workers and the industry indirectly supported an additional 805 full-time equivalent jobs in the two-state region. Thus, sustaining sugarbeet production and conservation of soil and water is very important to the society in eastern Montana and western North Dakota. Conventional tillage is still widely used by sugarbeet growers, which consists of five or more passes across a field for plowing or ripping, leveling (one to two times), and ridging. The conventional tillage has many unintended consequences for soils and the environment such as loss of organic matter, increased soil erosion and pesticide runoff, reduced soil fertility, loss of soil structure and porosity, compaction, surface crusting, formation of plow pans, reduced root growth, and poor drainage. Eastern Montana has high wind in the fall and spring and the conventional operation sometimes creates heavy dust storms, which not only blow away fertile surface soil and damage sugarbeet seedlings, but also affect the traffic safety. Conventional tillage is also expensive, requiring large labor and fossil energy inputs. The sugarbeet industry and the Advisory Board for the Eastern Agricultural Research Center (EARC) have identified reducing tillage in sugarbeet production as one of the top research priorities. Sugarbeets require a considerable amount of water and nitrogen (N) during the growing season. Low N levels limit root yield while high N rates can reduce root sucrose content and increase impurities that affect sucrose extraction. Excess N and irrigation water can also cause surface and groundwater contamination and increases input costs. Therefore, effective N and water management is critical due to their relatively high costs and potential environmental hazards. We will try to develop the strip tillage (ST) as a conservation tillage (CT) practice for sugarbeet production. We hypothesized that ST is more ecologically/environmentally oriented and economically sound compared with CT. We will also develop a canopy-sensor-based nitrogen management in order to enhance N Use Efficiency (NUE) and reduce environmental concern associated with inefficient and/or over fertilization. We will also evaluate the applicability of deficit irrigation regimes for sugarbeet production in order to save irrigation water while maintaining yield and quality. This project will address three major concerns associated with sugarbeet production not only in Montana and North Dakota, but also in other sugarbeet production areas. We expect that the results of this project will be useful in order to optimize production practices (tillage, water, N) for sugarbeet which will be economically viable (savings in input costs and possibly enhancing yield and quality) while protecting the environment (soil and conservation, reducing soil erosion and degradation, reducing environmental pollution associated with over fertilization). A potential indirect benefit of this project is to conserve water and soil for future generations. During the project period, research results will be disseminated to producers and scientific communities through conference presentations, field tours, extension publications, and scientific journal articles.    

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The objectives of this project are:

    1) Research on ST for sugarbeet production. We will evaluate yield and quality of sugarbeet under ST compared to CT in three consecutive years. 

    2) Optimize irrigation management and develop a canopy-sensor-based N management approach for sugarbeet. We aim to develop an algorithm which will help farmers and agronomists estimate yield and quality of sugarbeet by running canopy reflectance sensing during the growing season. 

    3) Increase awareness of the growers about the importance of conservation tillage and optimum N and water management. At the end, we expect that the results of this study will lead sugarbeet growers toward a more sustainable production system by modifying tillage, irrigation, and N management. 


    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.