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Published September 02, 2010, 06:34 PM

Pre-pile beet yields indicate huge crop

Sugar beet cooperatives in the Red River Valley are posting phenomenal yields in the pre-pile harvest, making it likely that shareholders will not be allowed to harvest all of their acres.

By: Mikkel Pates, Grand Forks Herald

FARGO — Sugar beet cooperatives in the Red River Valley are posting phenomenal yields in the pre-pile harvest, making it likely that shareholders will not be allowed to harvest all of their acres.

American Crystal Sugar Co. of Moorhead already is seeing pre-pile yields averaging 20 tons per acre. Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative of Wahpeton, N.D., is running in the “mid-20s,” which both sound more like yields for mature beets in October.

Crystal has 500,000 shares of stock, but shareholders were allowed a “tolerance” of planting acres totaling 80 percent to 85 percent of their preferred shares of stock. A total of 420,000 acres were planted.

Jeff Schweitzer, Crystal spokesman, said that even with the pre-pile harvest starting at a record early date of Aug. 17, Crystal growers were advised in early August that they initially are allowed to harvest as much as 70 percent of preferred shares. Growers who planted a higher percent at the start would have more acres to cut back, proportionately.

Crystal’s board of directors will make a decision on whether those set-aside acres can be harvested after the full stockpile harvest is under way, Schweitzer said. That harvest traditionally starts Oct. 1 but sometimes is moved up a day or two. When full harvest is 50 percent complete, the board starts evaluating how many, if any, of the “at-risk” acres can be harvested.

Pre-pile harvest typically runs four weeks and brings in 10 percent of the total crop. This year’s pre-pile will run six weeks and will bring in about 15 percent of the crop.

“Quite honestly, it’s not a position the company likes to put the shareholders in, and it’ not a position the shareholders like to be in,” Schweitzer said. The decision to leave some beets in the field is a way to right-size the harvest with the processing capacity of the company’s five factories. The factories are in Moorhead, East Grand Forks and Crookston in Minnesota and Drayton and Hillsboro in North Dakota.

Crystal’s projected yield is in the “upper 20s” for tonnage. The record is 25½ tons per acre in 2007.

The 2009 yield was about 23½ tons per acre. The current payment estimate for the 2009 crop is $50 a ton. If realized, this would be the third time in four years the payment has hit that level. In 2008, the payment was $47 per ton. Even the pre-pile harvest numbers are impressive. Yields are already averaging 20 tons, ranging from 12 to 25 tons per acre.

Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative’s pre-pile harvest also started Aug. 17. In the first couple of weeks, the co-op harvest was bedeviled by high temperatures. Now, the harvest has been stopped by rain, said Tom Knudsen, vice president of agriculture.

Minn-Dak planted 114,600 acres this year, about the same as last year, Knudsen said.

The “latest, greatest” yield estimate for the 2010 crop was for a total crop of 28.8 tons per acre, which would be a record. Even in the pre-pile harvest, there are hints of just how huge the crop is.

“Yield-wise, we’re all over the board,” Knudsen said of the pre-pile crop, but he estimates results are already in the “mid-20s” in tons per acre, which is more often a figure for a final yield.

“Those are numbers we’ve never seen on Sept. 1,” Knudsen says. Sugar content so far has been in the 11 percent to 12 percent range, which is “not catastrophic,” considering the time of year, Knudsen said. Sugar content levels increase in September, especially with warm, sunny days and cool nights.

He said that while Minn-Dak had a weather-reduced crop in 2009, co-op officials in November started warning producers that acreage cutbacks might be necessary because of yield results in other co-ops from here to Michigan.

As an example, a grower with 100 shares had been allowed to plant 160 acres, but have been told they would only be able to harvest 140 acres. The co-op will be spot-checking with GPS for compliance. Most of those beets would be plowed down.

Pates reports on agriculture. Reach him at (701) 297-6869 or mpates@agweek.com.

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