MOORHEAD, Minn. — American Crystal Sugar Co. started its pre-pile sugar beet harvest on Aug. 18, 2020, and is currently projecting a 28.3 ton per acre beet yield for the season.

At American Crystal, Brian Ingulsrud, vice president of agriculture at the Moorhead-based farmer-owned cooperative, said the start is about the same as last year’s Aug. 15 start, which is roughly average in recent years. It is earlier than starts were about 10 years ago.

Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., started pre-pile harvest on Aug. 10, earlier than last year’s Aug. 19 start. Minn-Dak Farmers officials weren’t immediately available for an update, but the company’s website said beet drivers need to wear masks on co-op scales and hold their hauling cards out of the window so the scale operator can scan them into the system.

Crystal’s start date is set in part based on the expected size of the crop and whether customers are looking for sugar, Ingulsrud said. American Crystal had a short crop last year due to Oct. 10-12 rain and snow, ultimately harvesting only 66% of the projected tonnage. Sugar bins are “really empty” for this point in the marketing year.

“We want to be a good supplier to our customers … so it’s important for us to get a good, early start,” he said.

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Ingulsrud said the projected yield is less than what the co-op had been hoping for at planting, but the co-op realized they were dealing with a planting date that was a week later than normal.

“That takes off roughly a ton per acre,” he said.

The co-op had allowed an extra 15,000 acres of beets to be planted using a volunteer system called a spring TAP (Targeted Acreage Program). They ended up planting 405,000 compared to 390,000 acres that would have been planted without the program.

In the pre-pile harvest, co-op members are divided into six groups who take their turns starting harvest early in a given year. The pre-pile harvest takes 15% to 20% of total acres, which is more than when the pre-pile harvests were shorter. Growers in earlier groups are paid a pre-pile “premium” price for those beets, designed to fully compensate them for the reduced yield and sugar content.

Aug. 18 temperatures in the upper 80s Fahrenheit didn’t have any bearing on the start date. The co-op processes beets during the pre-pile within three days on average. Higher temperatures are more of a factor when the full-scale harvest begins around Oct. 1, when the beets must be stored in piles until processing concludes, usually in mid-May of the following year, Ingulsrud said.

All American Crystal factories will start processing beets on Thursday, Aug. 20. Minnesota factories are in Moorhead, East Grand Forks, and Crookston. North Dakota factories are in Hillsboro and Drayton.

Not many acres have been abandoned this year, but yields are likely going to be higher in the southern end of the Red River Valley and progressively lower moving north.

“A lot of that is due to the fact that we got more rain than we needed in the early part of July,” Ingulsrud said.