Montana Sugar Factories Fire Up Early

Published online: Sep 08, 2017 Feature, News
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Labor Day was barely a few hours gone, and already the sugarbeets were piled high outside Randall Jobman’s office at the Western Sugar Cooperative facility in Billings, Mont.

From Hardin to Sidney, Mont., growers are expecting bumper sugarbeet crops, and factories are firing up early to take on extra tonnage. In Billings, the Western Sugar refinery began operating Aug. 30, more than a week ahead of its normal schedule.

“The sugarbeet crop in the Billings area is expected to come in around 34 tons an acre with an above-average sugar content,” says Jobman, Western’s vice president of agriculture, for its northern region.

The sugar industry pumps about $100 million into the Montana economy annually. Last winter, factories in Billings and Sidney worked into March turning beets into sugar, a month longer than normal. Factories are getting an early start to avoid another late run.

“We’re going early basically because the last couple years we’ve noticed a big increase in the size of the crop,” says Duane Peters, agricultural manager at Sidney Sugars in Sidney, Mont. “It’s better to get the beets earlier than to drag out the processing until March.”

Sidney Sugars growers are expecting to dig slightly less than 32 tons of beets an acre, Peters says. The factory in Sidney will begin making sugar by mid-month, two weeks ahead of schedule.

Last year, eastern Montana sugarbeet growers delivered a record 1.124 million tons to the factory, with a yield of about 31 tons per acre. But fall moisture had a lot to with the size of the crop. Late rains kept the beets growing for an extra month.

Western Sugar growers harvested a record 36.5 tons of beets per acre last year.

Statewide, sugarbeet growers rate 30 percent of their crop’s condition as good to excellent, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. The quality is much lower than the five-year average. Extreme drought in eastern Montana is likely a significant factor.

Peters says his growers have been pouring on the water this summer to achieve a good crop. One growers reported using four times as much water as he did a year ago and not seeing significant moisture a few inches beneath the surface.

Eastern Montana is in the worst drought in the nation, with dryland crop-killing conditions not seen in 30 years. But river flows have held up through the dry summer, and irrigated crops like sugarbeets, barley and corn have done well.

Harvesting sugarbeets in early September has its risks. A late surge in summer temperatures can cause beets to rot as they wait piled up to be shipped to the factory. The challenge is keeping the pile’s core temperature no warmer than the mid-50s, Peters says.

Western Sugar is no stranger to early starts. In recent years, the harvest has started right after Labor Day on more than one occasion to accommodate large crops. There have also been fall campaigns that stalled in October because of heavy rain or freezing temperatures. But those harvests started out hot, just like this year.

“Due to the warm temperatures, we schedule harvest to have just enough beets on hand to stay ahead of the factory’s needs,” Jobman says.


Source: Billings Gazette