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Cold Beets

Sugar beets are moved with a large front-end loader as steam rises above the Western Sugar Co-op refinery in Billings in 2016.

Montana’s sugar factories are going into overtime this year processing a record crop of sugar beets.

Western Sugar Cooperative in Billings plans to go into March turning beets into sugar. The company fired up the factory in late August, its earliest start in recent memory.

“The Montana crop ended up with 36.6 tons per acre, which set a record,” said Randall Jobman, Western’s vice president of agriculture, Northern Region.

In a more typical year, Western farmers would start an early harvest after the first week of September just to feed enough beets into the factory to prepare it for an October campaign.

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Western Sugar

An aerial view shows the Western Sugar plant and tailings impoundment.

This year, Western knew by late summer that it was going to need extra time to process all of its beets. With a full month of the sugar-making to go, there are massive beet piles on along the Yellowstone River still waiting to be trucked to Billings.

In Sidney, where sugar beets are still piled high, Duane Peters, agricultural manager at Sidney Sugars, expects to finish in a few weeks, but that’s because the factory fired up in September, instead of October, its usual beginning.

“It’s going great. We started the 16th of September,” Peters said. “We’re actually getting our vents in now early.”

Ventilation conduit is added to a beet pile to prevent the beets from spoiling as they wait to be fed to the factory for slicing.

Temperatures in the Sidney area have stayed below 30 degrees for a weeks, which is exactly where the temperatures need to be to preserve beets for a long time.

A year ago, Sidney Sugars processed beets weeks into March in order to capitalize on a record crop.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.