Sugar beet harvest

POWELL — Although local sugar beet crops are coming up short of projected yields, Mark Bjornestad, senior agriculturist for Western Sugar Cooperative, is all smiles at this point in the 2018 harvest in the Lovell Factory District.

Why is that the case? It’s all about the sugar in this year’s beet crop.

Tonnage had been forecast to come in at a record 31 tons per acre in the factory district. With 70 percent of the crop in hand on Friday, yields are not on a record pace.

“It looks like our average yield is going to be just under 29 tons to the acre,” Bjornestad said. “The tonnage is a little bit disappointing since our sampling had indicated we would do better than that.”

But there is a record in the making in 2018. It’s in sugar content.

“... Sugar content, on average, is just a few decimal points under 18 percent, and for the Lovell Factory District as a whole, we can’t find a time in all of our records that we’ve averaged 18 percent sugar,” Bjornestad said, adding, “From the point of view of the sugar company, we’d rather have the high sugar content.”

As a rule of thumb, Bjornestad said each 1 percent of sugar content is worth three tons of yield.

Anecdotally, he’s seen some grower reports with fields 

averaging 20 percent sugar. That is as good as it gets, he noted, because a beet is 80 percent moisture.

It is indicative of the “very, very high quality crop” produced by growers in 2018, he said. “It’s been a good run; impurities are low, and sugars are high.”

Snow accompanied a sharp downturn in temperatures over the weekend, but sugar beets will shrug off the bad weather as simply an interlude.

“When it’s cold and nasty for people, it’s really good for the sugar beet harvest,” Bjornestad said.

That’s the case as long as there’s not a prolonged freeze or heavy snows. And October weather is forecast to return to a comfortable range this week.

The beet harvest was slowed Friday with morning temperatures in the low 20s.

“That was our first real frosty day, the first day that was concerning from a temperature standpoint,” Bjornestad said. “We slowed the harvest down in the morning until the frost got out of the beets. If there’s any frost on top of the beets and you put enough of it in the pile, it creates moisture that can cause spoilage.”

Even lower temperatures were recorded Saturday and Sunday, but the outlook is for much-improved conditions as the harvest resumes this week after a drying-out day Monday.

Reports on factory operations are also favorable. Western Sugar is trying to stay ahead of a labor shortage at the factories for a slicing campaign that will run into February.

“We’re adequately staffed, but not over-staffed,” Bjornestad said.

The harvest in the Lovell district should be 90 percent done by the end of this week, he estimated. But the final 10 percent could drag on for the rest of the month.

“From my experience, it’s going to be close to Halloween before we’re all in,” Bjornestad said. “For varying reasons, the last little bit goes slow.”

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