Sugar beet crop hit by snow in late spring, then hot summer

western sugar

Trucks unload sugar beets as the Western Sugar Cooperative’s annual processing campaign begins in September.

Larry Mayer, Billings Gazette

Montana sugar refiners are expecting to close deals in January after the 2022 sugar beet season dished out some climate jawbreakers for farmers.

Cold temperatures and late spring snow kept Yellowstone Valley farmers away from their fields for weeks during planting season, causing harvests to lag behind schedule. The same late snowfall resulted in unusually high snow depths in the Absaroka Range, which led to massive flooding in May and June.

Only in autumn did rain fall in good time bring the harvest to a successful conclusion. Similarly, crisp spring conditions in eastern Montana meant the beets got off to a tough start, but late recovery from rain was not to be had.

Sugar Beet is a $100 million Montana business with factories in Billings and Sidney making sugar from about 45,000 acres of beets.

“We actually delayed the harvest a little bit, like five, six days, just because we knew the harvest was a little further back,” said Brett Nedens, a Hardin-area farmer who is also vice chairman of the Western Sugar Agricultural Cooperative . “That turned out to be really good because the beets weren’t quite ripe yet due to the persistent heat. Then we got some moisture in late September, early October and the harvest ended pretty well.”

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Farms supplying Western Sugar’s Billings factory averaged more than 32 tons per acre and had a sugar content of 17%, said Randal Jobman, Western Sugar’s vice president of agriculture for the northern region. Western is a five-state cooperative with farms and factories from Montana to Colorado.

sugar beets

A sugar beet lies shredded by a storm in 2019.

CASEY PAGE, Billings Gazette

In the far east of the state, farmers growing beets under contract with Sidney Sugars got a late start and didn’t get the timely fall rains, but Sidney Sugars was pleased with the result, said Duane Peters, Sidney Sugar’s agriculture manager.

β€œIt came in about 26.9 tons per acre. We call it 27 tons. The sugar content was around 17%,” Peters said of the harvest. “We’re glad our beets are probably six to four weeks behind normal planting dates.”

Above-average summer temperatures are a challenge, Peters said. In general, few things grow well in heat. Other plants in the area also seemed to be struggling with the temperatures.

Crop diseases have been a problem for farmers between Sydney and Glendive. The leaves of the regional crop were beginning to show signs of Cercospora, a fungal condition that causes beets to focus heavily on leaf production at the expense of better roots.

“It’s a leaf disease that comes in and hits the beets. The leaves shrivel up and the beets have to use the sugar to grow more leaves,” Peters said.

It’s common for factories in Montana to continue making sugar well into February. Sidney Sugars often stays busy well into the high school’s Eastern Division basketball playoffs. This year the Sydney factory will be completed in January. Nedens said the Western Sugar factory in Billings is also expected to be ready in January.