The plan to launch commercial production of biofuels and high-value chemicals from “energy” beets in North Dakota is being delayed for two years to give growers more time to evaluate the potential impact of herbicide residue from previous crops grown on land marked for beet farming.
Still, project leaders, who had hoped to begin commercial-scale production this year, say the delay does not alter their commitment to give producers in the state new revenue opportunities through a variety of sugar beets developed to make alternative fuels and other products.
The initiative, Beetsall Biofuel, is the product of a partnership between Green Vision Group, a renewable fuels developer based in Fargo, and Heartland Renewable Energy, a Muscatine, Iowa-based company that focuses on ethanol made from alternative feedstocks.
The research component of the project is led by North Dakota State University, where scientists say their studies show that energy beets can be grown with great success outside of the traditional production area of the Red River Valley. They also say energy beets have a wide array of attributes, including improving soil health because tap roots penetrate as much as 6 feet and use nutrients, nitrogen and water that other crops don’t reach. Energy beets improve internal soil drainage, are relatively tolerant to drought and saline (alkaline) soils, and have a relatively low nitrogen requirement, they add.
“The decision to delay was made when we started to recognize the carryover of chemicals in the field,” said David Ripplinger, an NDSU bioproducts and bioenergy economist and assistant professor.
Noting that the state grows a wide range of crops, Ripplinger says the predominant issue for growers looking to grow energy beets, even two or three years from now, is to be mindful of what herbicides they use on their crops this year.
Researchers say herbicides applied to other crops, especially corn and soybeans, have a long rotational restriction, and as a group, ALS-inhibiting herbicides tend to have the longest rotation restrictions for energy beets (up to 40 months). Products containing sulfentrazone, atrazine, Sonalan, Treflan and Prowl have rotational restrictions of 24 months or longer for energy beets. Spartan, for example, has a rotational restriction of 36 months.
Potential beet growers, NDSU scientists say, must pay attention to the crop rotation restriction of each active ingredient in premixture herbicides. For example, Extreme has a 40-month rotational restriction for energy beets because it contains imazethapyr (Pursuit) as an active ingredient.
Project leaders urge growers to contact a chemical dealer or a local Extension Service agent for suggestions on what chemicals can be used to avoid affecting a future energy beet crop while still controlling weeds in their current corn or soybean crop.
Rippinger said the plan is to grow beets, which have a rotation of about four years, widely across non-traditional areas of the state, ultimately building 12 to 20 “county-scale” biorefineries with about 20 million gallons of capacity each. Currently, some 45 dry-land and irrigated field trials are under way, as is the exploration of storing whole beets and beet juice in a way that optimizes their value in the production of biofuels and chemicals.
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