Planting Report: Colo. sees sharpest uptick in sugar beets; Sunflowers take another hit | TheFencePost.com

Planting Report: Colo. sees sharpest uptick in sugar beets; Sunflowers take another hit

Eric Brown | The Fence Post

Colorado is expected to have the nation's biggest percentage increase in sugar beet acres this year.

According to a prospective planting report released Monday by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Colorado farmers are looking to plant about 28,500 acres of sugar beets this spring, which ranks eighth nationally and is a 6.3 percent increase over 2013.

Nationwide, though, sugar beet acres are expected to be down about 4 percent.

The new report doesn't include a by-county breakdown of acres, but, per usual, the bulk of Colorado's beets will be planted in Weld County, where nearly 40 percent of the state's crop is grown each year.

The increase in acres, however, makes some local farmers "a little nervous," they said, since the U.S. already faces a sugar surplus that caused prices to plummet last year, and prices have only recovered a little since then.

When the price of a crop falls, farmers often plant less of it and instead plant others.

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But sugar beet growers have little say in how much they produce.

Due to price volatility and other unique aspects of the sugar industry, nearly all sugar beet farmers in the U.S. grow the crop under contracts with cooperatives, and because of that, they're required to grow a certain amount of beets each year.

Heading into spring planting a year ago, the sugar surplus in the U.S. — which many in the industry attribute to the government over-importing sugar from Mexico — caused prices to fall by about 40 percent from where they'd been a year earlier.

Despite the nation's ongoing oversupply issue, the Denver-based Western Sugar Cooperative — which works with most sugar beet growers in Colorado, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming — is increasing acreage in all four of its states.

They are the only four states in the U.S. increasing production, according to the NASS report.

Kent Wimmer, CEO of Western Sugar, said the cooperative is increasing production in its four-state area this year partly to make up for its drop in acres a year earlier.

Because of water-availability concerns following the historic drought and other issues, Colorado farmers planted 14 percent fewer acres in 2013 than they did in 2012.

Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana also planted much less last year than they did in 2012.

That's led to a smaller inventory for Western Sugar this year, which along with a number of other things, is factored into Western Sugar's formula for figuring out how many acres their farmers plant each year.

Even though there's collectively too much sugar in the U.S. and prices are low, Western Sugar still has to produce enough to make good on contracts with its buyers, even if prices aren't ideal for farmers.

But while prices are low, local farmers said they don't anticipate losing money on the crop this year.

With better seeds and continually improved farming practices, today's typical production per acre for sugar beets makes the crop a profitable one, even now, said Artie Elmquist, who grows a variety of crops near Mead.

"If we still had the same seeds and technology we had 10 years ago, then we might be in trouble," he said.

Behind Colorado, the second-largest increase in sugar beet acres in the U.S. is expected in Nebraska, where acreage is expected to be up 4.3 percent, followed by Montana at 3.9 percent, while Wyoming is expected to see an increase in acres of about 0.7 percent.

Outside of Western Sugar's four-state area, sugar beets acres look to be down in every other state this year, including Minnesota, which is far and away the nation's leader in sugar beet production, growing about 40 percent of the nation's sugar beets. Minnesota this year is expected to plant about 435,000 acres, 27,000 less than last year, representing a 5.8 percent drop.

SUNFLOWERS

A crop that covered about 300,000 acres in Colorado about 15 years ago is expected to continue seeing its acreage decline in the state this year, according to the report released this week.

Colorado farmers are expected to plant just 53,000 acres this spring, the report says, continuing a steady decline in Colorado that included sunflower acreages of 128,000 in 2011, then 86,000 in 2012, and 67,000 in 2013.

Last year — after a report showed Colorado's total sunflower production in 2012 was down about 55 percent from the previous year — Colorado fell out of the top five in the U.S. for its sunflower production.

At the time, northeast Colorado farmers — who grow the bulk of Colorado's supply — told The Tribune that the price of other commodities, like corn and wheat, led farmers to replace many of their sunflower acres with the more profitable crops during the past couple years.

In northeast Colorado, demand and prices for corn and other livestock feed sources are particularly strong. Some of the largest cattle and sheep feedlots in the nation operate in Weld County to support the likes of JBS USA in Greeley — one of the four major meat processors in the country. Additionally, the Greeley area's rapid dairy growth — currently adding tens of thousands of cows to meet the increasing demands of an expanding Leprino Foods cheese-processing plant — has added to the livestock feed needs.

The 2012 drought took a toll on a number of crops' production levels, but no other crop saw a production decrease like the state's sunflowers, because of the other factors at play.

Other Spring Crops

• This spring, Colorado is expected to be one of only seven states to increase its corn acres, doing so by a slight 1 percent. Nationwide, corn acres are expected to drop by about 4 percent in 2014, from about 95.4 million acres last year to about 91.7 million acres this year.

• Percentage-wise, Colorado is expected to see its biggest jumps in its acres of oats (up 18 percent) and dry beans (up 15 percent), and its 6 percent increase in sugar beet acres was the biggest in the U.S. (a separate story on Colorado's sugar beet acres is online at http://www.thefencepost.com). Colorado farmers are also expected to see a slight uptick in barley acres (up 2 percent).

• In addition to sunflowers (down 21 percent), Colorado is expected to see a big decreases in acres of sorghum (down 19 percent).

Wheat

Also included in this week's report were the estimated acres of winter wheat, planted back in the fall. Colorado, according to the report, saw a 24 percent jump in winter wheat from the previous year.

The much-improved planting conditions this past fall played a big part in more acres of winter wheat being planted in Colorado. In September, when the bulk of winter wheat is planted, some areas of Colorado received as much as five times, or more, of its normal rainfall.

In Weld County, the state's largest ag-producing county, water issues have also played a part in the increase of wheat-acres. Many Front Range cities cut back recently on how much water they lease to area farmers — particularly cutting back in 2013, because many cities' reservoirs needed to be refilled after being depleted during the 2012 drought. That being the case, many farmers about a year ago reported that acres they typically devoted to corn or other crops had been planted with winter wheat, since wheat is a less water-dependant crop. ❖

ANTICIPATED CROP ACRES FOR 2014

Crop Acres (change from 2013) U.S. Rank

Wheat 2.86 million (+24%) 6

Corn 1.23 million (+1%) 16

Sorghum 325,000 (-19%) 4

Oats 65,000 (+18%) 13

Barley 64,000 (+2%) 9

Sunflowers 53,000 (-21%) 6

Dry beans 45,000 (+15%) 7

Sugar beets 28,500 (+6%) 8

Anticipated hay acres harvested this year: 1.3 million acres (-1% from 2013, ranking 17th in the nation)

Source: National Agricultural Statistics Service

*Colorado is also a top 10 producer of cabbage, cantaloupe, sweet corn, onions, potatoes and peaches, but anticipated planting acreage for those crops this spring was not included in this week’s NASS report.