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Western Sugar processing

Beets are piled as Western Sugar starts processing on Tuesday, September 5, 2017.

Labor Day was barely a few hours gone and already the sugar beets were piled high outside Randall Jobman’s office at Western Sugar Cooperative.

From Hardin to Sidney, farmers are expecting bumper sugar beet 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 normal.

“The sugar beet crop in the Billings area is expected to come in around 34 tons an acre with an above average sugar content,” said Jobman, Western’s vice president of agriculture, 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,” said Duane Peters, agricultural manager at Sidney Sugars. “It’s better to get the beets earlier than to drag out the processing until March."

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

Last year, Eastern Montana sugar beet farmers delivered a record 1.124 million tons to the factory, with a yield of about 31 tons an 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 farmers harvested a record 36.5 tons of beets per acre last year.

Statewide, sugar beet farmers rate 30 percent of their crop’s condition as good to excellent, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The quality is much lower than the five-year average. Extreme drought in Eastern Montana is probably a factor.

Peters said his farmers have been pouring on the water this summer to achieve a good crop. One farmer 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 sugar beets, barley and corn have done well.

Harvesting sugar beets 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 said.

Western 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 said.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.