ISSUE #384b

384b The Sugarbeet Harvest

Reap What You Sow


Efficient processing of sugarbeets is greatly improved if the crop is harvested and stored properly prior to factory processing. Objectives of proper harvesting include: (1) reducing field harvest losses; (2) reducing root dirt tare; (3) complete removal of leaf and petiole material; (4) delivery of frost free roots to storage piles and (5) placing beets in storage at root temperatures of 55 degrees F. or less. Careful harvesting, proper beet storage, and efficient processing are complexly interrelated operations. American Crystal sugarbeet growers who own the processing factories economically benefit by recognizing this fact.

American Crystal shareholders are recognized as some of the best sugarbeet growers in the U.S., or world when it comes to raising high quality, high yielding sugarbeet crops. Sugarbeets in the RRV are commonly in storage for up to 200 days or more before processing. To maximize on-farm profit it’s imperative each crop is harvested as efficiently as possible and is delivered to stockpiles in the best condition to minimize long term losses of recoverable sugar. The theme of the Agricultural Department Harvest GOLD STANDARD is to "Minimize Tare and Field Losses Using Proper Harvest Methods."

Attention to the guidelines and research-based recommendations that follow will give all shareholders the ability to maximize their on-farm profit and potential for success.

Factors Effecting Field Selection at Harvest

Many factors must be considered to plan harvesting operations to maximize yield, quality, root storability and on-farm profit. Factors of importance to consider are:

  • Soil type and field drainage
  • Variety
  • Field yield potential
  • Crop nitrogen fertility status
  • Crop storage suitability
  • Headlands versus whole fields
  • Pre-pile or stockpile harvesting

A more complete look at effects of each of these factors on crop yield, quality and revenue will enable growers to make best management practice harvest decisions.

*Headlands Versus Whole Fields for Pre-pile

All growers must consider the pre-pile premium payment system instituted in 2000 and its impact on beet payments. Headlands and parts of a field to be harvested during the pre-pile period will have greater revenue per acre if:

  • High quality varieties are planted
  • Nitrogen is reduced by 20 to 40 lb/acre
  • Seed spacing adjustments made at planting improve
  • headland plant populations
  • Headlands are planted to another crop
  • Beets are scalped instead of flailed

*Soil Type and Field Drainage

Many growers choose to harvest beets from fields with heavy textured soils first to avoid possible wet conditions that make harvesting very difficult on high clay content soils later in the season. Fields with difficult to cross ditches or unusually wet areas should be considered for early harvest as well.

*Yield Potential

Fields with poor plant populations or other yield reducing problems should be harvested during early pre-pile or at the beginning of the full harvest period. These fields increase less in yield than better fields if left to harvest later in the season (Table 1). A high plant population results in greater yield and quality at every harvest date except in some cases with excessive plant populations of 200 beets/100’ on 22 inch row.

Table 1. The Effects of Population and Time of Harvest on Sugarbeet Yield and Quality. Dr. Larry Smith, U of MN. NWES, Crookston, 1980.

PopulationHarvest DateYieldSugarRecoverable Sugar
50 9-23 15.3 14.4 3810 248
  10-1 17.4 15.1 4536 260
  10-13 16.0 15.8 4288 268
  10-22 17.1 16.9 4984 292
100 9-23 17.2 14.9 4483 261
  10-1 18.8 15.5 4969 265
  10-13 18.6 16.7 5404 291
  10-22 18.3 17.2 5558 303
150 9-23 17.7 15.3 4691 266
  10-1 19.9 15.9 5509 276
  10-13 19.3 17.0 5693 295
  10-22 19.3 17.2 5764 298
200 9-23 17.6 15.4 4836 275
  10-1 18.8 16.5 5487 292
  10-13 17.8 16.7 5154 290
  10-22 18.0 16.7 5286 294
Significance LSD (0.05)   **

*Nitrogen Fertility Status

Petiole nitrate tests may be used to determine which field to harvest first. Beet fields with dark green, lush foliage usually have high nitrogen content, lower sugar content, and higher impurity levels. Fields with high plant petiole-nitrate content in early fall may be harvested last when crop quality should be much improved. Fields with more than 2,000-ppm petiole nitrate-nitrogen at harvest will have less than optimal quality. Petiole nitrate levels should be less than 1,000 ppm to achieve desired yield and quality. The later the crop is harvested, the higher the yield and quality should be. The exception is if a severe frost kills most plant foliage, stopping further crop yield and quality improvement. Satellite images may also be used to determine the extent of each field that is lush, green and likely to be of poorer quality prior to harvest. Careful analysis of prepile delivery records may also indicate which field might best be lifted early or late during full harvest. Fields with a very distinct yellowing of the leaf canopy will not suffer reduced yields if foliage completely covers the soil until it is harvested.

Crop Storage Suitability

Many factors can damage beet fields and cause roots to be unfit for long term storage. Fields with a high percentage of roots damaged by 1) root rot 2) spray drift and 3) flooding should be harvested during pre-pile. Such fields have less potential to increase in yield and quality if left for later harvest. Contact your agriculturist to make arrangements to lift entire fields during the pre-pile period. You must have enough pre-pile quota to lift whole fields during the pre-pile period.

Defoliation Best Management Practices

The setup and operation of sugarbeet defoliators has not received enough attention. Payments to growers can be dramatically affected because of the impact of defoliator operation on crop yield and quality.

Objectives of the Defoliation Operation Are To:

  • remove all petiole and leaf material from beet crowns.
  • minimize root and crown breakage.
  • eliminate loss of yield from beets knocked out of the row.
  • sweep soil and beet canopy debris from the area adjacent to each beet row to facilitate lifting, especially on the harvester row finder row.
  • remove only the top 1/3 or a 50-cent piece size part of the crown when using scalpers.

Figure 1: Properly and Improperly Flail Defoliated Beets

384b .1

Figure 2: Properly and Improperly Scalped beets.

384b .2

Scalping vs. Flailing

No matter what method of defoliation is used, for acceptable storage, we must have beets free from leaves, petioles, dirt and trash.

Now comes the question – "Should I scalp - Yes or No?" Ideally, if you can do a good job of scalping by taking a 50-cent sized piece off the crown, this is probably the best method of defoliation. (Figure 3.) Sometimes this is difficult however. In an uneven stand of beets where large beets and small beets are side by side in the row, the larger beet will tend to grow higher out of the ground than the smaller beet making it almost impossible to do a good job with the scalpers. (Figure 4.) Another item to be aware of with scalpers, if not set properly, they can be too aggressive. (Figure 5.) One ounce of excess weight taken per beet on a stand of 150 beets / 100’ equates to 1.1 ton/acre of lost yield!

384b .3

384b .4

384b .5

The goal of scalping is to remove a portion of the crown area that contains the highest impurities, the lowest sugar content and the active growing point. When done properly, in most cases you can see an increase in return per acre. The risks though are in losing significant tonnage by scalping too aggressively (Figure 5.) and in exposing a large area of cut beet which increases the respiration rate and opens the crown parenchyma cells to infection and rot which is reflected in higher sugar losses.

A study conducted in 1980 by Dr. Larry Smith at the University of Minnesota – Crookston demonstrated the possible benefit of scalping. (Table 2.) shows the summarized results of the study pointing toward a reduction in tons harvested but an increase in sugar, a reduction in %SLM and an increase in purity. By using a figure of 22 cents/lb. of sugar, this study showed a $35/acre increase in the gross beet payment.

Table 2. The Effect Of Scalping vs. Non-Scalping 1980 - Dr. Larry Smith, U of M

TreatmentYieldSugarSLMRecoverable SugarNaKAmino N Impurity Index Gross Beet Payment 
(T/A)(%)(%)(lbs/A)(%)(lbs/T)Per Acre 
Scalped  18.2  17.1  2.3  5395  87.1  297  4676  2215  777  856  $568.71 
Non-Scalped  19.7  16.2  2.35  5459  85.5  278  580  2327  825  969  $533.24 

Another study conducted in 1987 by Tom Zidon, Sr. Agriculturist, American Crystal Sugar, also shows the benefits of proper scalping. Beets were dug by hand and 3 inches of petioles were left on the beets. The beets were then cut in half lengthwise and with one of the beet halves topped by hand to the first leaf scar. The samples were analyzed in the quality lab and the results (using 22 cents/lb. for sugar) are as follows (Table 3):

Table 3. Scalped vs. Green - 1987 - Tom Zidon, ACSC

 % Sugar% SLMEstimated Gross $/s per ton
Scalped 17.59 1.63 $36.35
Green 16.49 1.70 $31.20
Difference 1.10 -0.07 $5.15

A difference of $5.15/ton on a 20 ton crop is over $100/acre! This compares the optimum to the absolute worst but it does show the value of proper defoliation. Just one poorly defoliated beet in ten could cost you $10/acre!

So, What is the Answer?

1. SCALP if:

  • you have a uniform stand,
  • you can remove all of the leaves and petioles,
  • and you can scalp a 50 cent sized cut from the crown of the beet; you should be money ahead by using the scalpers.

2. FLAIL if:

  • you have an uneven stand,
  • you aren’t doing a good job of removing the leaves and petioles,
  • and the scalper is too aggressive. You are better off taking your time and flailing the tops off.

3. Bottom line: either way, you’ll maximize your profit by delivering clean, trash free beets for long term storage.

Efficiency of defoliation is influenced by several factors. Grower attention to each factor will improve crop profitability and storage of the crop. Factors to consider when defoliating beets are:

  • ground speed of the defoliator – 3 mph is ideal.
  • flail condition, type, and configuration.
  • pre-frost or post-frost situation.
  • variety growth characteristics.
  • need to flail or scalp.
  • use of a flail shredder before defoliation.
  • level of weed control.
  • plant population.
  • uniformity of plant spacing.

Level of Weed Control

Poor weed control during the growing season makes proper defoliation much more difficult. Excessive weeds interfere with harvester operation, increase downtime for harvesters and pilers and increase storage losses. Defoliators must travel slower in fields with excessive weeds and may still do an unacceptable job. Use a flail shredder prior to defoliation of weedy fields to makes it easier to deliver properly defoliated beets to piling sites.

Variety Growth Characteristics

For OPTIMUM defoliation, a defoliator should be adjusted for the soil conditions and growth habit of the variety planted in each field. Planting more than one variety in a field is not recommended. Mixing seed of several varieties with widely varying crown growth characteristics prior to planting is not recommended. Both situations may result in great difficulty in properly adjusting the defoliator to do the best possible job.

Plant Population and Spacing

Uniformly spaced plants in the row make it easier to adjust the defoliator to remove all petioles. Non-uniform plant spacing in the row may necessitate slower defoliator operation and still result in incomplete defoliation, lower payment per ton and less revenue per acre. Uniformity of plant spacing can be improved by checking planters on test stands, using slower planting speeds and use of pelleted or coated seed.

Flail Shredder Use

Use of a flail shredder ahead of the defoliator is recommended whenever the defoliator does an inadequate job of removing all petiole material. These situations include:

  • fields with very heavy canopy growth.
  • fields with bad weed infestations.
  • when operating defoliators at 4 mph or faster.
  • when defoliating after a hard frost.

Speed of Defoliator Operation

Research conducted by Dr. Larry Smith, at Crookston in 1989 and 1990 clearly showed significant losses in recoverable sucrose as defoliator ground speed increased from 3 to 6 mph. For each 1-mph increase in speed between 2 and 5 mph approximately 0.25 percent sucrose and 7.0 lb. of recoverable sugar per ton were lost. Table 4 shows losses in crop quality and revenue from improper defoliation.

Table 4: Effects of Defoliator Ground Speed on Sucrose Content and Beet Payment. Larry Smith, U of MN, 1990.

Defoliator Speed (mph)Sucrose (%)SLM (%)Rec. Sucrose (lb/T)Revenue ($/T)*
2 19.66 1.62 360.7 43.48
3 19.40 1.70 353.9 42.16
4 19.12 1.81 346.0 40.65
5 18.90 1.85 340.9 39.64
6 18.50 2.00 330.0 37.51
* Based on American Crystal payments for 1999 crop.

Crop quality and revenue decreased for several reasons as defoliator ground speed increased. These reasons included:

  • insufficient time for flails to remove petioles as they passed down the row.
  • poor defoliation of small beets close to large ones.
  • bouncing of the defoliator due to field roughness at increased speeds.

Flail Types and Configurations – (Prefrost)

Dr. Larry Smith conducted research in 1989 and 1990 at the U of MN, Northwest Experiment Station to evaluate effect of flail type and configuration on crop yield, quality and revenue per ton. All treatments were applied before and after frost conditions at different speeds, using all new flails on triple drum defoliators. Each treatment was replicated five times. The data from the pre-frost research is shown in Table 5.

Table 5: Main Effects of Flail Type and Configuration on Sugarbeet Quality Prefrost. Larry Smith, U of MN.

Flail Type
YearFront DrumMiddle DrumRear DrumSucrose (%)SLM (%)Rec. Sucrose (lb./T)Revenue ($/T) 1
1989 Rubber Rubber Rubber 17.60 1.29 326 36.77
  Studded Rubber fRubber 17.65 1.24 327 37.16
  Studded fStudded Rubber 17.25 1.34 318* 35.22
  Rubber Studded fStudded 17.25 1.32 318* 35.30
  Studded Studded Studded 17.00 1.36 313* 34.18
1990 Rubber Rubber Rubber 19.11 1.64 349.4 41.27
  Studded Rubber Rubber


1.70 348.4 41.08
  Studded Studded fRubber 18.68 1.72 339.2* 39.29
  Steel Studded Rubber 18.56 1.74 336.4* 38.75
  Steel Rubber Rubber 19.06 1.59 349.4 41.27

* Significantly lower quality and revenue/ton
Based on American Crystal Sugar Co. payment scale for the 1999 crop

Under pre-frost conditions defoliators with all rubber flails or studded or steel flails on the front drum only followed by rubber flails on the middle and rear defoliator drums had:

  • higher sucrose content
  • lower impurities (SLM)
  • significantly higher recoverable sugar per ton
  • higher revenue per ton

Data from the post-frost trials is shown in Table 6. Following two nights of 130F temperatures in 1989 and three nights of 170F in 1990, results were much different. After a heavy frost the all rubber flail configuration was inferior to the configurations with studded or steel flails on the front drum. Running the defoliator over the sugarbeets a second time did not improve defoliation for any flail type or configuration.

Table 6: Main Effects of Flail Type and Configuration on Sugarbeet Quality – Postfrost. Larry Smith, U of MN.

Flail Type
Year Front Drum Middle Drum Rear Drum Sucrose (%) SLM (%) Rec. Sucrose (lb./T) Revenue ($/T) 1 
1989  Rubber  Rubber  Rubber  16.25  1.55  294.0  30.53 
  Studded  Rubber  Rubber  16.81  1.40  308.2  33.28 
  Studded  Studded  Rubber   16.95  1.30  f314.0  34.21 
1990  Rubber  Rubber  Rubber   18.92  1.92  340.0  39.45 
  Studded  Rubber  fRubber  19.38  1.93  349.0  41.20 
  Studded  Studded  Rubber   19.39  1.93  349.2  41.23 
  Steel  Studded  Rubber   19.37  1.90  349.2  41.27 
  Steel  fRubber  Rubber   19.53  1.91  352.4  41.85 

Based on American Crystal Sugar Co. payment scale for the 1999 crop.

Tips For Successful Defoliator Operation

  • Slow down – excessive speed is costly, operate at 3 mph or less.
  • Poorly adjusted and dull scalping knives cause increased yield loss.
  • Adjust defoliator settings for each field or variety.
  • Don’t use all rubber flails after a frost.
  • Take time to train defoliator operators thoroughly.
  • Change flails as needed – they won’t last the life of the machine.
  • Studded flails may damage beets and increase storage losses.


Alan Dexter, and Allan Cattanach (NDSU/U of MN) and Don Kieffer, American Crystal Sugar Co., conducted extensive evaluations of beet harvesters in the field in 1991 and 1992. Only minor differences were observed between manufacturers of harvesters. Speed of harvester operation had a major effect on beet yield and revenue per acre each year. In 1991, increasing speed of harvester operation from 4 to 6 mph resulted in a loss of 1.4 ton per acre yield and an increase of 0.5% tare under ideal digging conditions (Table 7). In 1992, increasing speed of harvester operation from 3 to 5 mph resulted in 0.6 ton/acre lower yields and an increase in tare of 1.1% under wetter digging conditions (Table 8). Revenue declined $56 per acre in 1991 and $27 per acre in 1992 as harvester speed of operation increased. Yield loss was determined to be due primarily to increased tail breakage and difficulty staying on the row at higher speeds. Field yield loss was increased slightly as speed of harvester operation increased. Sugarbeet sucrose percent, loss to molasses, and impurity levels were not affected by speed of harvester operation.

Table 7: Effect of Speed of Harvester Operation on Sugarbeet Yield and Quality in 1991. Dexter, Cattanach, and Kieffer.

Harvest Speed (mph)Sucrose (%)Dirt Tare (%)Loss to Molasses (%)Root Yield (T/A)Recoverable Sucrose (lb/A)Revenue Per Acre ($)1
4 18.1 4.5 1.10 16.3 5,359 $643
6 18.1 6.0 1.10 14.9 5,073 $587

Based on American Crystal Sugar Co. payment scale for the 1999 crop.

Table 8: Effect of Speed of Harvester Operation on Sugarbeet Yield and Quality in 1992. Dexter, Cattanach and Kieffer.

Harvest Speed (mph)Sucrose (%)Dirt Tare (%)Loss to Molasses (%)Root Yield (T/A)Recoverable Sucrose (lb/A)Revenue Per Acre ($)1
3 18.25 4.9 1.30 18.1 6,104 $710
5 18.30 6.0 1.40 17.5 5,877 $683

Based on American Crystal Sugar Co. payment scale for the 1999 crop.

Tips For Successful Harvester Operation

  • Keep harvester operation at 4 mph or less.
  • Use properly operating row finders.
  • Check field losses as necessary.
  • Adjust grab rolls, scrubber chains, digging depth, pinch point settings, etc. as field and soil conditions change.
  • Contact the harvester manufacturer, or your agriculturist for assistance.
  • Use Safe-T pulls, or similar safe pulling devices during wet harvests.
  • Deliver beets free from excess dirt, stones, and trash that interfere with storage and processing.

Harvest Loss Appraisal

The harvest loss appraisal technique was developed as a tool for both the grower and agriculturist to use as a method of evaluating what tonnage is actually being left in the field. This quick analysis can and has saved growers hundreds and thousands of dollars by measuring tonnage not going into the truck and allowing for corrective action. One lost two-lb. beet per 10’ of row equates to a 2.4 ton/acre loss! It doesn’t take much beet loss to add up to big $’s.

Beet loss is like an iceberg – 90% of it is under the surface so you can’t always look behind the lifter and know that you are doing a good job. It’s also important to remember that conditions can change from one field to the next and even within a field so the need to adjust your harvest equipment to the conditions at hand is necessary.

To Conduct a Harvest Loss Assessment:

Mark out: (22" rows only)

  • 4 Row Lifter – 4 rows wide x 15’ length = 110 sq. ft.
  • 6 Row Lifter – 6 rows wide x 10’ length = 110 sq. ft. Row Lifter –
  • 8 rows wide x 71/2’ length = 110 sq. ft.
  • Glean the area picking up any small pieces of sugarbeet which have been broken off due to the harvester or defoliator down to the diameter of a dime. Make a mental note as to the beets, which have been rolled out by the defoliator. Dig down the rows looking for broken tails remaining in the ground.
  • Next, weigh the whole beets and pieces.
  • Take the beet weight and divide by 5 to get Tons/Acre Loss.

    EXAMPLE: A beet weight of 3.25 lbs. / (divided by) 5 = .65 tons/acre loss.

What is an acceptable loss?

  • 1 ton/acre is HIGH – adjustment recommended.
  • ½ to 1 ton/acre is ACCEPTABLE.
  • 0 to ½ ton/acre is LOW.

In assessing the loss you must take into consideration stand count, variety, weed pressure and disease. Adjustments Recommended:

  • Defoliator – speed, flail height and condition.
  • Harvester – speed, depth, pinch point, chain speed and ratio, row finders and spacing.

Other Requirements For Harvest

Deferred Payment Request

Shareholders have the option to defer their initial beet payment into the following calendar year if they so desire. A form is made available to these shareholders where they are asked to provide the contract and field number to identify the payment to be deferred. The form is then dated and signed by both the grower and agriculturist. This must be completed and turned in to your agriculturist at least 24 hours prior to the delivery of any beets from the deferred contract/field.

Hauler ID Cards

These are cards issued to shareholders by the agriculturist or ag office coordinator that identifies the contract and field # specific to that particular field. Growers are asked to use the proper ID cards during harvest to ensure that good production information is gathered.

Universal Stickers

Any truck that is hauling beets at harvest is required to have this sticker. It must be located so it is visible to the weighmaster when the truck is approaching the scale. You will receive these from your agriculturist.

Truck ID Forms

Minnesota growers are required to provide their contract #, truck #, license # of the truck, grower unit and the # of axles on the truck to the ag department before they can receive their hauler ID cards. This information is then made available to their respective states if requested. The ag office coordinator must have this information before you are allowed to haul. North Dakota growers may have to provide this information in the future.


Excess acres over those allowed by contract must be destroyed prior to receiving hauler ID cards. Compliance must be verified by your agriculturist.


The state DOT’s and law enforcement have the right to be on shareholder property to check for compliance with diesel fuel for agricultural use regulations.

Truck Specifications

Guidelines have been established specifying requirements for: axle length; truck height, length and width; unloading time; maximum end-gate opening and truck clearance. The specific information is available from your agriculturist. For the safety and efficiency of harvest, these items will be enforced.


Pets are not allowed anywhere on company property, including inside of a vehicle.
Smoking is not allowed in any American Crystal Sugar Company Building.

Driver Training

Let your agriculturist and piling site foreman know of truck driver training needs you might have. They can help plan training for new drivers to make the harvest go smoother and safer for all.