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Stephen J. Lee, Published August 18 2010

American Crystal’s pre-pile sugar beet harvest is earliest ever

American Crystal Sugar Co.’s beet growers are beginning their patented early harvest earlier than ever because the crop looks to be bigger than ever.

The “pre-pile” harvest of sugar beets began Tuesday on a graduated schedule of growers. Typically, Sept. 1 marks the kick-off to the early harvest to get American Crystal’s five factories steaming before the full harvest begins Oct. 1.

“The 17th (of August) is the earliest we have ever started,” said Dan Bernhardson, director of agriculture for the Moorhead-based cooperative that grows more sugar beets than any other operation in the nation.

The factories won’t begin running until Thursday, once a supply of beets is on hand, Bernhardson said. The pre-pile period acts as a sort of shake-down cruise for the full harvest.

Early is the word because the early spring planting and great growing season add up to a crop expected to cruise by the previous record yield of 25.4 tons per acre “by two to three tons,” Bernhardson said.

That is a remarkable sign of farming success and of new days in beet farming.

Only a decade ago, 20 tons an acre was considered a peachy beet yield.

But in the past few years, a new plateau has been reached in beet yields, indicated by the current record being hit both in 2006 and 2008, while yields in other recent years didn’t fall back much.

Only 10 years ago, American a record was set when the co-op averaged 21.6 tons per acre.

Of course, one of the reasons for increased yield is the use the past three years of genetically modified beet seed that makes the plants impervious to the popular herbicide Roundup. That allows growers to kill weeds quickly and more cheaply using Roundup than the traditional way using manual labor.

This year, the farmer-owned cooperative allowed the 850 growers to plant 80 to 85 percent of their shares, another indication that average yields have steadily ticked upward. (There are about 2,500 owners of American Crystal stock, who include relatives and landlords of the growers.)

The last time growers were allowed to plant 100 percent of the outstanding shares was 2007, when 500,000 acres were seeded.

Growers have been told this summer they likely will be allowed to harvest acres equivalent to only 70 percent of their stock, the lowest ever allowed – or conversely, the biggest set aside ever, Bernhardson

Practically, it means growers will harvest only about 82 percent of what they planted, unless production ends up being less than projected.

For several years, the co-op has ordered the plowing down of 5 to 15 percent, of the planted acreages because of increasing yields.

The fact is, the five factories – in East Grand Forks, Crookston and Moorhead in Minnesota and in Hillsboro and Drayton in North Dakota – can only process so much. Plus, the federal government limits American Crystal to a certain amount of sugar to market in the controlled trade unique to the sugar beet and sugar cane industry.

Setting aside 18 percent of the 420,000 acres planted this year still will garner about 10 million tons of beets, the typical need for American Crystal, if the average yield ends up running to 28.4 tons per acre. The full stock is equivalent to 500,000 acres of beets.

In 2007, when all 500,000 acres were harvested, pre-pile began Aug. 20.

Despite an earlier pre-pile this year, the full harvest still is scheduled for Oct. 1. It will mean about 15 percent of the crop will be harvested by then, instead of the more usual 10 percent, Bernhardson said. Of course, weather and other factors still could force American Crystal to adjust its schedule.

The annual “campaign,” at the five factories to haul, store and process the beets, runs until late May. Sugar beets can’t be stored outside in warm weather, so it doesn’t pay to begin too early or keep running too late in the spring, company officials say.

Other crops

In other harvest news, spring wheat and barley harvest remains behind normal in North Dakota and well ahead of normal in Minnesota, where the crops aren’t as big a deal.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s weekly survey of county extension agents, only 27 percent of the spring wheat in North Dakota was combined by Sunday and 43 percent of the barley. That compares to 38 percent and 55 percent, respectively, on average from 2005-09 by the same date.

In Minnesota, three-fourths of the spring wheat was harvested by Sunday, 71 percent of the barley, compared to the normal 42 percent and 61 percent, respectively.

Hot temperatures quickened the ripening of grain, but stormy weather halted combines across North Dakota and northwest Minnesota.

But ground is being made up fast in some parts. Ken Nichols, extension agent in Traill County, estimated 75 percent of the spring wheat there was combined by Monday afternoon.

Stephen J. Lee is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald