With producers finally able to get in the fields, yields are looking good for area sugar beet crops

Jason Stuart
Thursday, October 17, 2019
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Jamie Ausk Crisafulli photo

Sugar beets began to pile up at the Pleasant View Receiving Station Tuesday afternoon as Tuesday was the first day the weather allowed producers to get in the full swing of harvest. While the harvest season is behind a bit, the good news is beet yields are looking positive in Dawson County.

With the historic rainfall which hit the area in September, local sugar beet growers got a late start, and while sugar contents are down and tare weights are up, yields are actually quite good, and at the very least Dawson County’s contract sugar beet growers finally have the right conditions to allow them to harvest their crop.

The conveyer belts at Sidney Sugars’ Pleasant View receiving station roared back to life early Tuesday morning, starting the local beet harvest in earnest. A few beets had been taken into the station the week before, but overnight lows dipping into the low 20s put a stop to harvesting until things warmed up a bit.

“We’re finally digging at all locations starting today, so I’m happy,” Sidney Sugars agricultural manager Duane Peters said Tuesday morning. “We’ve been in a shutdown due to some frosty conditions.”

Thanks to the rain, and then the recent cold snap, the beet harvest is quite late, no doubt about it, as only 12 percent of the beets grown under contract for Sidney Sugars in Dawson County had been harvested as of 7 a.m. Tuesday morning.

“We’d like to get the beets out earlier,” Peters said. “We should be at about 40-50 percent (harvested).”

The recent cold only delayed further what the torrential September rains — the month was the wettest single month in Glendive’s history — had already put behind schedule.

“It’s been a slow start due to the weather. Everything is late,” Peters said, adding that many of his beet growers used the delay in the beet harvest to rush to get other irrigated crops, like beans and corn, out of their soaked, muddy fields.

“This moisture has really put us behind,” Peters concluded. “The weather has impacted these guys a lot.”

It has also impacted the sugar content of this year’s beet crop. Sugar contents are currently averaging between 16.7 percent to 17 percent, which is lower than the ideal, which would be 17.5 percent and above. Peters did note that the recent cold snap has concentrated the sugars a little more and that the sugar content of beets being harvested right now does seem to have increased a bit.

“The sugars are a little bit lower due to the wet weather,” he said. “But we have noticed the last couple of days the sugars are coming up a little bit too.”

Wet, saturated fields also mean mud, which means that the tare weight — the amount of non-beet material that comes in with each beet load, i.e. dirt, debris — is higher than Sidney Sugars would like to see. It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to know that mud clings to the harvested beets a lot more than dry, loose dirt.

“We’re always going to have a little tare, but this year we are really seeing more of it than we’d like to,” Peters said. “That’s running at about 5-6 percent and we usually like to see around 3-4 percent.”

While that’s the bad news, the good news is that in terms of yield, this year’s beet crop was at least bountiful.

“We’re seeing some good yields down there (in Dawson County),” Peters said, noting that local beet fields are yielding 32-33 tons per acre, on average. “We’re very happy with the yield we’re seeing so far.”

But the late start to the harvest is definitely an overall negative, as far as Sidney Sugars and their growers are concerned.

“It’s negative in that it’s later than normal, so it’s causing a lot of hardship on the growers,” Peters said.

One of the main ways the late harvest is impacting growers is in terms of securing help for the harvest, especially for truck drivers to deliver the beets to the receiving station.

Peters noted that the people the growers hire out as temporary help during the harvest season are harder to come by this year because the harvest is so late. He said many of those seasonal workers take vacations from their regular jobs every year at the same time like clockwork in order to work the beet harvest, but when the clock gets pushed so far out of whack from normal and many of those workers have already spent their vacation time with no beet harvest work to be had, the growers are left with a much smaller pool of extra help to hire from.

That fact has made Gov. Steve Bullock’s executive order last week easing up vehicle weight load restrictions on beet growers something of a godsend, Peters said.

“That’ll be helpful for the growers coming long-distance, because they can put a little more weight on those trucks and do it a little more efficiently, which means making fewer trips,” he said. “We really want to thank the governor for doing that, it’s going to be very helpful to the growers.”

What would also be helpful is for a little stretch of warm, dry days, which thankfully is in the forecast for the next week or so. Now Sidney Sugars and its beet growers are just hoping that forecast holds out. Wet and cold, they’ve seen enough of that for this year.

“If we can get two weeks of harvesting, we’ll have a lot of this crop out,” Peters said. “We would just like to see some warm days. If we get a couple of good days for harvesting, we can make up a lot of ground.”

With all they’ve faced this year — rains that wouldn’t quit, delayed harvest, too cold too early, shortages of seasonal workers for the harvest — Peters said his beet growers deserve a break, along with a hearty pat on the back for fighting through it all.

“You have to give the farmers a lot of credit, they’re battling stuff they haven’t seen in a long time,” he said.

Reach Jason Stuart at dcedc@midrivers.com.

“We’re seeing some good yields down there (in Dawson County,) We’re very happy with the yields we’re seeing so far,”
Diane Peters, Sidney Sugars agricultural manager