Unseasonably warm temperatures, freezing temperatures and rain or snow are typical challenges farmers face during the sugarbeet harvest in the Northern Plains.

Pretty much all of them have come into play in the 2021 harvest.

The intermittent weather delays that have characterized the 2021 sugarbeet campaign of Moorhead, Minnesota-based American Crystal Sugar Co. and MinnDak Farmers Cooperative, in Wahpeton, North Dakota, have resulted in slow harvest progress.

"It's crazy, but it's a normal sugarbeet harvest," said Mike Metzger, MinnDak Farmers Cooperative vice president of agriculture. As of Tuesday, Oct. 19, the MinnDak harvest was 35% to 40% complete, Metzger said.

So far, average per acre sugarbeet yields, which are measured in tons, are higher than the cooperative had anticipated, he said.

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“We’re getting reports in the upper 20s to mid-30s and everything in between,” Metzger said. “It blows my mind. This crop has put on over one-third of its root mass in the last six weeks.

“It’s unheard of. Nobody expected that kind of volume,” he said.

The crop is estimated to be so large that the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative board of directors put in place a mandatory set-aside of 10% of the acreage the cooperative’s 500 farmers planted this spring, Metzger said. Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative growers planted a total of about 105,000 acres in 2021. The set-aside could be lifted, depending on how the remainder of the crop yields.

Besides the quantity of this year’s sugarbeet crop, the cooperative also is pleased with the quality. The 2021 crop’s sugar percentage, is in the upper 17s and low 18s, Metzger said.

Several consecutive days of favorable harvest weather is needed to bring in the remainder of the sugarbeet crop in North Dakota and Minnesota.

It takes about two weeks to complete the sugarbeet harvest, which usually begins on Oct. 1, Metzger said. However, this year, warm weather delayed the start of the harvest until Oct. 11, then rain and heat during the next week again shut down factories for several days.

“It’s tough to hit our stride and bring the crop in,” Metzger said.

As the month of October progresses and November looms, temperatures drop so frost or freeze damage to sugarbeets becomes a concern.

“The longer it goes, the biggest issue we have, going forward, is Mother Nature,” he said.

The coldest weather of the 2021 harvest season were expected on Oct. 20 and Oct. 21, when overnight temperatures were forecast to dip into the mid- to upper 20s.

In 2019, freezing temperatures in early November destroyed thousands of the Red River Valley sugarbeet acres, and farmers had to abandon them.

The difference between the 2019 freeze and the temperatures forecast for Oct. 20 and Oct. 21 is that this year both soil temperatures and air temperatures are warmer.

In 2019, nighttime lows fell below 20 degrees and the daytime high temperatures were at or below 32 degrees, said Steve Rosenau, American Crystal Sugar Co. director of agriculture. This year, daytime temperatures are forecast to be in the high 40s and low 50s.

Meanwhile, the canopy of the sugarbeets should help protect the roots, he said, noting that a few hours of temperatures in the 20s will not kill the canopy.

About half of American Crystal Sugar Co.'s harvest was complete as of Tuesday, Oct. 19, Roseau said. The company estimates yields will average 27.5 million tons, and sugar content is 17.5%.

Farther south, farmers who grow sugarbeets for Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in Renville, Minnesota, have made good harvest progress, said Todd Geselius the cooperative’s vice president of agriculture.

The cooperative had to shut down briefly because of warm temperatures and rain after it launched the stockpile harvest on Oct. 11. Most farmers, except for those in the northwest part of the co-op district where it’s been wetter, have made good progress since then, Geselius said.

He estimates that sugar content of Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative’s crop will be slightly less than the average of about 16.5%. Per acre yields of the 121,386 acres that farmers planted in 2021 is expected to be about 34 tons, Geselius said.