Sugar beets nipped: Suffering ‘two doozy frosts’

Mikkel Pates
Forum News Service

WAHPETON, N.D. — Sugar beet farmers in much of the Red River Valley have some “doozy frosts” by mid-October, but officials from two cooperatives say they’re hopeful for recovery.

Tom Knudsen, vice president of agriculture at Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, said his co-op has lifted beets on 75 percent of its 87,500 acres so far and could be largely completed by the weekend of Oct. 20.

The two freezes in the mid-20s Fahrenheit in the southern valley were recorded Oct. 12 and Oct. 15.

“We’ve got some crown damage on beets with tops on. Not a lot — it varies,” Knudsen said. “Most of the beets that were not defoliated are in pretty good shape. The ones that were defoliated were froze to the ground.”

After that kind of a freeze beet, mechanical “topping” or defoliation is more of a problem because the leaves collapse and become like rope, Knudsen said. Topped beets that were frozen in the ground have to thaw out, then dry out, before Minn-Dak can accept delivery in two or three days after the frost.

Beets with minimal crown damage can be delivered after a day or two of recovery. The co-op sets up “chop stands” by the scale house where workers slice the tops to look for dark, damaged cells indicating frost damage. Farmers know that any damaged beets can’t be put in storage piles and have to be taken back to the farm.

Minn-Dak finished processing 2017 beets on July 5, 2018 — the latest in the company’s history — so this year had a short “maintenance campaign” between crops. The company reduced planted acres in 2018 and delayed harvest until Sept. 17. The factory started Sept. 18, about a month later than usual.

Sugar content is coming up short at about 16.5 percent, which is less than the desired 17.5 to 18 percent.

A wet, warm August and September increased cercospora leaf spot disease for Minn-Dak. Knudsen praised growers for spraying five or six times “or more,” but said the fungicides are “somewhat obsolete” and have lost some effectiveness.

Single digits

Brian Ingulsrud, vice president of agriculture for American Crystal Sugar Co. in Moorhead, said his growers had fewer problems with cercospora, but more with freezing.

American Crystal had only finished 45 percent of its harvest as of Oct. 17. “We had some very low temperatures. Some got down to single digits last week,” Ingulsrud said. “We got another cold blast down into the teens Monday.”

The co-op had only 10 sugar beet piling stations opened on Oct. 17.

Beets are “amazing plants,” he said, and “can heal themselves” from frost damage. “Once they complete that healing process, we can start that harvest again,” he said.

Crystal, too, was experiencing “wiry,” frost-bitten beet tops that don’t chop off cleanly from the beets. “We don’t want those tops in the piles,” Ingulsrud said. “That’s more material that will rot and create heat in the pile.”

So far, American Crystal’s beet sugar content had averaged more than 18 percent, which is slightly above normal. The current average yield projection is 30 tons per acre.

Duane Peters is agricultural manager at Sidney Sugars Inc. in Sidney, Mont., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Crystal. Peters on Oct. 17 said his growers were 75 percent completed with their harvest after a two-day shut-down due to cold. Sidney’s yields are projected at 32 tons per acre and about 17.75 sugar content, which is lower than usual, Ingulsrud said.

Sugar beets in the southern Red River Valley have been hit with temperatures in the lower 20s while some beets in the northern valley had single-digit temperatures. Photo taken Sept. 10, north of Wheaton, Minn.