Cold, Wet Weather Hurts Sugar-Beet Harvest

November 13, 2006

Weather unusually cold and wet has damaged the eastern Montana sugar-beet crop, some of it left frozen in the ground because harvest equipment cannot cross the wet fields.

Heavy rain since mid-September and four consecutive nights of temperatures in the teens or lower jeopardized almost 400,000 tons of beets, said Tony Zitterkopf, agriculture manager for Western Sugar Cooperative.

It operates Billings and Lovell, Wyo., refineries that have been accepting frost-damaged beets for processing. Rapid handling is essential because the beets deteriorate quickly as they warm, Zitterkopf said.

Farmer Kelly Brester of the Laurel area had only six days of harvest, in October, and said the chances that he will harvest more of his beets “get dimmer every day. There is so little drying weather in November.”

Brester planted sugar beets on 215 acres, 95 of which have beets not harvested.

The 8 inches of rain his land has received since mid-September is unprecedented, Brester said.

“I have water standing in one field like I had been irrigating,” he said.

Greg Lackman of Hysham said beets remain to be dug on nearly one-third of the 880 acres that he and his brother farm.

Lackman, president of the Mountain States Beet Growers Association, said the harvest is turning out to be the most difficult since he began farming in 1980. He said he carries crop insurance, as do about half of the association’s members.

The situation is somewhat brighter in the Sidney area, where agronomist Kerry Rasmussen of Sidney Sugars said the crop was 97 percent harvested before the freeze hit. Beets struck by the frost were dug and taken to the refinery immediately.

Frost nipped the crop in the Worland, Wyo., area, said Cal Jones, chief executive for Worland Sugar Co.

“We were close enough to being done with harvest that the last ones (frosted beets) are getting into the factory,” Jones said.

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