Montana sugar beet factories are firing up this month as farmers begin harvesting what they say is one of their better crops.
The Western Sugar Cooperative began making sugar Sept. 1. Sidney Sugars is expected to fire up its factory soon. After several challenging years of hail damage, rain, and early freezes, farmers say this year’s harvest is promising.
“It looks pretty good. It’s not like a record crop or nothing, but we’ll be somewhere around 30 tons per acre,” said Don Steinbeisser, who farms near Sidney.
Last year, more than a foot of September rain kept far-Eastern Montana farmers from digging beets as fields were too muddy to work. Cold weather followed raising the risk of spoiled beets for what crop did come out of the field.
In south-central Montana, rain and cold weather so delayed the harvest that acres of beets were left in the ground as Western Sugar ended the 2019 campaign.
Sugar beets are a $100 million industry in south-central and Eastern Montana.
The weather in 2020 has been better. Western Sugar expects a record crop, overall, said Randall Jobman, Western’s vice president of agriculture, northern region.
“Based on our pre-harvest samples, we expect to harvest a 34.91 ton crop (per acre) with a 17.7% sugar in Montana and 28.7 tons in Lovell (Wyoming) with a 17.00% sugar.” Jobman said in an email. “The Nebraska and Colorado crops look to be excellent this season as well. Overall, the Cooperative is expecting a record-breaking crop at 33 tons per acre with an 18% sugar.”
In northern Wyoming, Western Sugar farmers will start digging beets Tuesday. The factory starts making sugar Thursday.
For Butch Ewen, this year’s hail-free summer was needed after large hail obliterated the Huntley Project-area crop in 2019. This summer started cool, which delayed crop progress, but warmer weather in July and August brought improved beets. Not everyone was spared from the damaging hail that farmers refer to as "the white combine," although hail damage was minimal throughout the Western Sugar Cooperative region.
“Not me, but all around me there’s been hail. There’s been hail in Hardin, St. Xavier, hail down in Hysham and we grow beets in that area, too,” Ewen said.
This year, Huntley-area farmers began digging beets the first weekend in September.
Early harvests are limited by warm weather. Farmers unload beets in large piles to be loaded into trucks and shipped to Billings. The goal is to only pile enough sugar beets to keep the factory fed and not allow the beets to stay piled long enough to reach a temperature warmer than 50 degrees. Any warmer and the beets start to spoil.
In October, when temperatures are cooler, farmers will ramp up the harvest and pile the sugar beets high. The Billings factory will be fed beets into February in a typical year. The Sidney Sugars factory in Sidney will make sugar into late February or early March.