Sugarbeet harvest ending for producers along Yellowstone

Published online: Nov 12, 2013
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GLENDIVE, Mont.-Sugarbeet harvest is in its final stages for producers across eastern Montana and northwestern North Dakota who grow beets under irrigation from the Yellowstone River for Sidney Sugars, Inc., in Sidney, Mont. But the end hasn't been easy.

"Sugarbeet harvest is going well, but we've been fighting the weather here in this final week," said Russ Fullmer, agricultural manager at Sidney Sugars.

Recent rain has kept producers from completing harvest.

"The first 80 percent of harvest went easy with great beets, very clean. The last 20 percent has been a fight with wet beets," he said, adding they were about 92 percent complete as of Monday, Oct. 21.

Sugar content in root samples - at 16.55 percent - has been lower than the usual 18 percent, but the tonnage or yield is good with producers reporting yields of 27.2 tons per acre, which is very good, according to Fullmer.

"Back in the old days, we were lucky to get 23-24 tons to the acre," he said.

The lower sugar content has been typical across the U.S. this year and elswhere.

"Canada has a good sugar crop, (but) everyone else is lower than normal," he said.

Fullmer attributes part of the problem to late planting due to the wet, cool spring and the fact many fields were hit with hail damage throughout the summer.

Sidney Sugars has six piling stations where farmers take their beets. Their biggest stations at Fairview, Mont., and Fairview, N.D., can hold up to 400,000 tons of beets, or about 14,000 acres, while Glendive can take in 68,000 tons of beets. Their smallest station at Terry, Mont., takes in about 25,000 tons of beets, Fullmer noted.

Sugarbeet harvest began on Sept. 30, for most producers in the region with Sidney Sugars beginning processing of the beets Oct. 1.

One of those providing beets is the Rice family who raises sugarbeets, corn and wheat, along with cattle and a custom calf backgrounding business north of Glendive.

At the Rice farm on Saturday, Oct. 19, the weather cooperated and the sun even came out bright and beautiful, as the family was in the final stages of sugarbeet harvest. The day before had been rainy and windy, leaving the sugarbeet harvest tough to maneuver in the soft soil conditions.

"We'll more than likely finish on Wednesday (Oct. 23) if the weather stays like this," said Dan Rice, who owns the farm with his wife, Deb, son, DJ, parents, George and Jenny, and brother, Dave and his family. "We've had several bouts of rain."

The sugarbeet harvest encompasses the entire family as it does for most sugarbeet producers along the Yellowstone Irrigation District.

DJ Rice starts the beet harvest in a John Deere tractor pulling a defoliator. George Rice said the tractor pulls the defoliator down the rows and as it does, the machine cuts off the tops of the beets.

"The defoliator has knives inside that slice off the beet tops and lays them into windrows," George said, adding the rotors on the defoliators have rubber flails that roll on both sides to shred up the remaining foliage so harvesting is easier.

Later, the sliced beet tops and pieces of leaves are grazed by their cattle herd.

DJ is followed by Dave Rice, who drives the sugarbeet harvester.

"The harvester has a row finder on it that makes it easy to steer down the row in a straight line," said Dave.

The harvester follows behind the topper, plucks the beets out of the ground, and moves them up into a bin.

Dirt is removed from the sugarbeets by conveyor rolls and a ferris wheel elevator that shakes the beets using rollers on the way to the bin. From the bin, the beets are moved on a conveyor belt and loaded into a semi that meets the beet harvester in the field and empties the harvester on the go.

They often use four or five truck drivers, Dave said, adding that labor is difficult to find in this oil producing region, so neighbors often help neighbors finish harvest. That was the case with the Rices at the end of October with their neighbor, Craig McPherson, who lended a hand with one of his own trucks after finishing his own beet harvest.

According to George, the sugarbeet harvest is exciting for him and other producers along the Yellowstone River.

"It is an exciting time of year. It is something we work for all summer long," said George.

However, it isn't always easy to dig the beets out of the ground during mid-fall when the weather can include rain, sleet or even heavy snow. George, who has been harvesting beets for decades and in every kind of weather possible, said "While it is not always easy, we work together as a family and get the work done."

This year, George is the "go to" person, bringing out lunches and going for fuel.

Dan's wife, Deb, works full-time during the sugarbeet harvest at the Savage, Mont., piling station.

Deb said at the Savage receiving station, just like at the other stations, semis and trucks with their loads of sugarbeets pull in to be weighed on the scale. Each semi can hold netween 19 and 28 tons of sugarbeets.

"We weigh the trucks coming and going from the station," Deb said.

The trucks coming in are weighed, and the drivers take their load of sugarbeets over to the crew at the piler where the dirt is separated from the beets.

The dirt is then loaded into the trucks and are reweighed going out and are given a load receipt that shows the weight of the beets minus the dirt.

"The drivers receive two tickets. One ticket goes to the piling crew and one ticket they keep until they weigh out, and then they receive their final load receipt," Deb said.

Growers' loads are randomly selected for a sample to be taken when their load of beets are delivered at the station, she said, adding that each grower is sampled several times during their daily deliveries.

"The sampled beets are put in a bag. At the end of the day, the samples are picked up and delivered to the lab at Sidney Sugars," Deb said.

The samples are analyzed for amount of tare (leaves, soil, plant material) and sugar content, and an average is obtained for that grower's samples. For example, tare could be averaged from all the samples to be 2.93 percent and the sugar could be averaged to 17 percent. The grower will receive the analysis back from the lab.

"The information, along with tonnage determines the payment for their crop," she said.

The beets are then stored in huge piles at the piling stations.

Dan said the harvest entails a lot of long hours, and producers are always glad to finally get a bit of a rest at the end of it-usually at the end of October.

However, for Dan and some other producers, cattle are also a part of the farm mix, and the Rices will be weaning and working calves and preg-checking cows, and also harvesting the corn grain.

Dan feels fortunate to have the irrigated land they have, with cattle able to graze along the long Yellowstone River, and crops able to thrive in the often arid conditions.

"Our family has been growing sugarbeets since my grandfather came here decades ago," Dan said, adding he is happy to have his son, DJ, to take over in the future so the family tradition will continue.