Digging beets

As the snow set in Wednesday, Oct. 9, area beet producers use tractors to pull semi-trucks through the mud beside the digger during sugar beet harvest.

Despite weather setbacks, sugar beet harvest is forging ahead and boasting solid numbers this year, with 90,000 tons on the ground as of Wednesday, Oct. 9.

Duane Peters, agriculture manager with Sidney Sugars, said harvest officially started on Sept. 27 in Culbertson, where they saw less moisture this fall than surrounding areas.

“The last couple of years we’ve started the factory earlier due to the size of the crop and the amount of acres we’ve had,” Peters said. “But looking at the acres this year and the size of the crop, we thought if we could start around the 20th of September, that would be a nice time to start.”

Peters said the moisture set that date back a bit, but harvest is moving along well despite the conditions. Culbertson had a few good days and were able to get 6,000 tons of beets on the ground before more weather moved in. Beet harvest got off the ground around Sidney soon after, with all five stations officially running by Monday, Oct. 7.

“The growers got out and started digging,” Peters said. “They actually found some fields that were harvesting really good. It wasn’t as muddy as they thought it was going to be.”

From Oct. 7 up until noon on Wednesday, Oct. 9, before the snow shut people down, Peters estimated roughly 90,000 tons of beets on the ground.

“They did a tremendous job harvesting. I can’t commend the growers enough for this. It’s been a struggle,” he said. “It’s not fun harvesting in the mud.”

Peters highly praised area producers for perseverance and for crop quality despite conditions. Beets are averaging about 17 percent sugar and are expected to average out at around 17.5 percent. Sugar content typically rises as harvest goes on. Average tonnage per acre is projected around 31.5, with some producers averaging closer to 37 tons/acre and some reporting 26 tons/acre.

“We’re definitely seeing some variance here. Again, I think that’s more weather-related and soil-related,” Peters said. “We haven’t seen a lot of sunshine… These beets need sunshine. That’s how they grow.”

Harvest time usually means strained traffic around the area and Peters reminded people to slow down, share the road, be patient and don’t crowd the beet trucks.

“I always like to warn people these trucks can’t stop on a dime. They’re carrying quite a bit of weight… Harvest happens once a year. Please be courteous.”

The recent snow shutdown is expected to last a couple days. Peters said they will keep an eye on temperatures and if sugar beets frost, they will let them heal before digging again, hopefully within a few days.

“That’s our next hiccup we are kind of worried about,” he said. “I can’t thank the growers enough. They’re battling it this year.”

That battle started last spring with area flooding and continues with unexpectedly harsh weather conditions. Currently, beet harvest sits about 9-10 percent complete, which is slightly behind schedule. By now, it should be 15-20 percent complete. As always, Peters said they are aiming to wrap up beet harvest by the end of October. Regardless of delays, the crop is still comparable to previous years.

“Last year was a good crop. We had very favorable growing conditions,” Peters said. “This year was a slow-starting crop, but we have more plants per acre.”

A higher plant population was found in 10-foot tests performed, which averaged 17-22 beets compared to last year’s 10-14 beets per 10-feet. That’s a reason to remain optimistic about this year’s crop.

With over 100 growers harvest an estimated 31,000 acres, Peters did expect some beets to go unharvested due to excessive moisture.

“We do have growers reporting already that they will not be able to harvest some of their acres because it’s just going to be unsuitable to harvest.”

The sugar beet industry in eastern Montana continues it’s reputation this year as some of the best crop in the country, Peters said.

“This area is known for growing sugar beets. This is something we are all proud of. These farmers are known nationwide for producing a very good sugar beet crop. There’s a lot of pride that goes on here — a lot of pride, a lot of knowledge, a lot wisdom that these growers have. They should be very proud to be called sugar beet growers.”

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