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Sidney Sugars sees strong yields, sugar content: Beet prospects rise with pallid sturgeon fix

Sidney (Mont.) Sugars Inc., started its pre-pile harvest on Sept. 12. Full-scale harvest will start Sept. 26, unless it’s too warm. Photo taken Sept. 17, at Sidney, Mont. Forum News Service / Agweek / Mikkel Pates1 / 6
David Garland has been general manager at Sidney (Mont.) Sugars, Inc., since 2012. The company is owned by American Crystal Sugar Co., a Moorhead, Minn.-based farmer-owned cooperative. Photo taken Sept. 17, at Sidney, Mont. Forum News Service / Agweek / Mikkel Pates2 / 6
Duane Peters, Sydney (Mont.) Sugars Inc., agricultural manager has been with the company for three years. Photo taken Sept. 17, at Sidney, Mont. Forum News Service / Agweek / Mikkel Pates3 / 6
Mike Steffan and his son, Jeff, harvest beets just north of the Sidney (Mont.) Sugars, Inc. factory on Sept. 17. The family has been raising beets since 1926. Photo taken Sept. 17, at Sidney, Mont. Forum News Service / Agweek / Mikkel Pates4 / 6
Mike Steffan and his son, Jeff, started sugar beet fields on Sept. 17. Mike says he’s been encouraged by 17 percent to 18 percent sugar content in the early-going. Photo taken Sept. 17, at Sidney, Mont. Forum News Service / Agweek / Mikkel Pates5 / 6
The early sugar beet crop at Sidney (Mont.) Sugars Inc., was producing 17 percent to 18 percent sugar -- excellent for the early part of the harvest. Yield under irrigation is expected to be 32.25 to 32.5 tons per acre. Photo taken Sept. 17, at Sidney, Mont. Forum News Service / Agweek / Mikkel Pates6 / 6

SIDNEY, Mont. — This is the second year in a row for early sugar beet harvests at Sidney Sugars Inc. on the Montana-North Dakota border.

Mike Steffan and his son, Jeff, raise beets just to the north of the factory in Sidney. Their Steffan Farms started opening fields on Sept. 17. The family has been raising beets for Holly Sugar at Sidney since 1926, when his grandfather came over from Germany.

Today, the Steffans grow for Sidney Sugars, a wholly-owned subsidiary of American Crystal Sugar Co., a farmer-owned cooperative based in Moorhead, Minn. The company has about 110 growers, ranging from Miles City to Culbertson in Montana, to Fairview, N.D.

"It's drier than we thought it was going to be for this early in the game," Steffan said. Sugar contents at that early date were running 17 percent to 18 percent, which Steffan said is "phenomenal for this early in the game."

Sidney Sugars' pre-pile or "early harvest" started Sept. 10, with the factory starting processing Sept. 12. David Garland, general manager since 2012, is pleased, so far.

"I think with the size crop — the 1-million-plus (ton) sized crop — the early start is essential and beneficial to us slicing all of our beets and having a good run at our factory," Garland said.

Garland says the acreage will come in at 32,600 harvest acres. The company then was projecting a 32.25- to 32.5-tons-per-acre yield, which Garland said is becoming the "new standard" and will result in about 1 million tons.

From wet to dry

The 2018 crop year started wet and grew drier at the end, supplemented by irrigation, says Duane Peters, Sydney Sugars' agricultural manager. The rain also provided good rotation crops — wheat yields in the area were a strong 70 to 100 bushels per acre. Non-irrigated wheat produced 60 bushels an acre, and farmers saw good hay crops, at 5.5 to 6 tons per acre on irrigated land. Corn is looking good.

For the beets, a wetter year led to more rhizoctonia root and crown rot, despite good genetics and chemical control. The seedling stand was excellent and appears to offer potential for good sugar content.

Sidney Sugars contracted 33,000 acres, so it was bringing in 3,500 acres in the early harvest. The factory processes all of those beets and then starts fresh with the full-scale harvest, scheduled to begin Sept. 26, assuming temperatures are cool. Oct. 1 is the deadline to start all receiving stations.

Sidney Sugars projects to be done with slice on Feb. 20 and to be done with processing by the end of February.

Peters, who has been with the company for three years, said producers are on more solid footing with their future ability to irrigate. Farmers and the community have backed a "fish bypass/weir" to help the pallid sturgeon reproduce on the Yellowstone River. The planned $59 million irrigation project is designed to allow irrigation water to flow, serving crops on 55,000 acres. The issue has been mired in federal funding and legal challenges.

"Farmers, the irrigation district and the whole community wanted to show people that, we're here to help the fish but also we need the water," Peters said.

Steffan said the irrigation solution was a lifeline.

"If we'd have lost that, I don't know what we'd have raised," he said. "The factory would have been gone. I've drilled wells, but I don't know how long they'd have lasted without the irrigation here to keep filling the aquifer."

Capital outlays

As confidence grows, growers invest in their production and the company moves ahead with capital improvements. In the past year, the company installed a in a new "pebbled lime system," in its sugar purification system. Garland declined to indicate the investment amount.

In sugar processing, calcium oxide (lime) is used in what's known as a non-sugar removal process. Lime is commonly produced in the lime kiln where limerock (CaCO3) is burned transforming the rock into lime (CaO) and carbon dioxide (CO2). The Sidney factory adds water to the lime to make a lime slurry. They add the lime slurry to the juice purification system after which the CO2 is reintroduced, capturing non-sugars, and settles out as a solid.

When processing fresh beets in the fall, the Sidney factory initially needs to add less lime to produce a high quality juice, Garland said. But as beets start to deteriorate in storage, additional lime is needed to counteract the deterioration.With the new Pebbled Lime System, additional lime will be available to maintain a steady slice rate and reduce sugar losses throughout the campaign.

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