Featured Grower - Peter Regitnig
Meet Peter Regitnig!
Peter Regitnig is a research agronomist who has been working in the industry for the past 38 years. His focus has always been employed on sugar beets and today, he tells of his start into the industry and the changes and advancements he’s seen along the way.
How did you get your start in the industry?
Even though both my parents were originally born on farms, I didn’t grow up on one. When I was a teenager in high school, I started going to my uncle’s farm in Saskatchewan to work for the summers. I did that all throughout high school, until I had to make a decision about what I wanted to do in university. At that time, I was debating between geology and agriculture, but I believe the experience I had in high school influenced me to go into ag.
I went to the University of Manitoba for my undergraduate and master's degree. In 1984 I accepted a position at Manitoba Sugar as a research agronomist. I was there for 13 years, until they closed the industry in Manitoba. But the same company was still operating the factory here in Alberta, so they offered me a transfer to Taber in 1997. I didn’t know too much about Southern Alberta, but I made the move and have been out here ever since.
What were you researching at the beginning of your career?
When I first started, one of the issues being looked at was planting sugar beets to stand. Prior to that, the crop was always thinned. I was doing some research and promotion, which at that time was huge because beets were so labor intensive.
The germination rate of sugar beet seed was not high, so the seed spacing in the rows was set to ensure that enough plants would sprout to create a good stand. That meant that in some places, the seedlings would come up too close together. Thickly planted rows would compete for space and nutrients, which would prevent many beets from reaching maturity and would reduce yield.
To get the ideal stand density (about 5 inches apart), the field would have to be laboriously blocked and thinned by hand when the plants were about 2 to 3 inches tall. One person would use a long-handled hoe to cut the continuous row of seedlings into “blocks” and a second person, usually on hands and knees, would use a short-handled hoe to thin the cluster of seedlings down to a single plant.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen during your time in the industry?
The biggest and most constant change has been variety development. We have a program where seed companies will give us new/different sugar beet seed varieties to test in our areas so we can see what will grow and produce the best here.
Every year seed companies will submit experimental varieties to us and we’ll run multiple growing trials with that seed. Basically, we use our commercial varieties as a benchmark standard and we’ll compare these new varieties against them. Our goal is to progress the crop, both in yield and sugar content. These new varieties must perform better than the ones that we’re currently growing.
Over the years, we’ve seen some significant developments, both in yield, sugar content, quality and herbicide resistance. I did a paper a few years ago where we looked at varieties from the 1970’s up to 2015 and we figured that in terms of gross sugar per acre, there was a 90% gain from 40 years ago. About half of that was due to variety development and the other half was due to agronomic practices that the growers have improved on in terms of their management.
What can you tell us about the genetically modified changes in sugar beets?
The sugar beet seed varieties used today are genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup). This means that when that Roundup is sprayed, all weeds will be eliminated, but it won’t harm, damage, or set-back the sugar beets.
The chemicals that I previously had to use, test, and spray prior to having GMO sugar beets were much more toxic than Roundup. As much as Roundup may take a bad rap from people who don’t understand what we’re doing with it, it’s a much safer product than some of the things I had to work with earlier in my career.
Roundup ready sugar beets have also allowed us to make great strides in soil conversion, soil management, and sustainability, which is often unknown. Prior to glyphosate, we were spraying – band spraying – almost weekly and having to cultivate in between the rows, making the topsoil extremely susceptible to blowing away in the wind. When we were able to switch to Roundup, we eliminated the inter-row cultivating, we became less intensive on the soil and the field preparation allowed us to leave no residue. The number of sprays that we use now, compared to before Roundup, has reduced dramatically. There were growers that quit sugar beets because they were just stuck in their tractor for all of May and June to spray and it eventually got to a stage where they wanted to see their family at night, rather than spend two months spraying sugar beets.
Roundup has also given us a yield bump because the old chemicals would actually set back the sugar beets. The old chemicals would sometimes kill the weeds, but they also injured the beets. That injury was taken away when we started spraying Roundup and that has probably impacted yields by an additional 1-1.5 tones/acre by not having that setback.
What’s the most interesting study you’ve done?
I’ve always enjoyed fertility work as my studies back in university were surrounding soil sciences and fertility. About 5 years ago, we did some phosphorous studies. We found some soil East of Taber that was low in phosphorus and we got two years of amazing responses to different treatments that we put on, including lime from the refinery. Phosphorus is a nutrient that you usually don’t see big responses in (measured in tonnage/acre). A couple tonne increase may be considered good, but in this field, we were getting increases up to 10 tonnes. The fact that we got some pretty substantial phosphorous responses was quite satisfying.
Come see a demo of sugar beet blocking and thinning. legacyoftheplains.org. (2014). Retrieved 19 July 2022, from https://legacyoftheplains.org/come-see-a-demo-of-sugar-beet-blocking-and-thinning/.