Most — but not all — sugarbeet processors conduct an early harvest (prepile) campaign to get their factories up and rolling prior to the initiation of the main harvest season.
Once the factory begins operating, of course, it must be supplied with a constant flow of beets until the main harvest starts a few weeks later, generating the “mother lode” that will keep things humming for months. The percentage of the total crop that’s actually delivered during prepile varies from district to district and year to year, but a general range would be 10 to 20. It can go even higher (as it did in Michigan last year, where it was over 25%).
The primary consideration for both grower and processor when it comes to early harvest beet delivery is neither mysterious nor surprising: maximizing revenue, minimizing problems — both short- and long-term. Sometimes the decisions regarding which acres to deliver during prepile are fairly straightforward; at other times, the selection call is decidedly less clear-cut. With that in mind, The Sugarbeet Grower recently surveyed ag officials at several sugar companies for their thoughts regarding the prioritization of fields for early harvest delivery.
Which Fields First?
Tom Knudsen, vice president of agriculture for Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, says his company uses a simple rule of thumb: “Harvest the worst first.” It’s a mantra shared by most companies. “Whether the ‘worst’ is caused by disease, late planting, hail, weeds or other factors, you will maximize sugar production by keeping your good fields untouched for as long as possible,” Knudsen observes. “We always prefer to get as many diseased fields harvested as soon as possible.” In the end, though, it remains the grower’s choice, he adds.
Paul Pfenninger, vice president-agriculture for Michigan Sugar Company sees the matter similarly. “We really look at disease in plant development,” he says. “If Rhizoctonia or Cercospora leafspot got away on them for any reason, they’re not going to get a better yield” than what’s already there. “If there’s any one reason why a grower delivers early, from our standpoint, it would be disease and/or poor quality beets that will not store well.”
Other ingredients enter into the mix too, of course. Fields testing higher in nitrogen usually are not recommended for early harvest due to their lower sugar percentage. “High nitrogen levels or above-average mineralization in August could reduce the sugar content and would make it unfavorable to consider that field for delivery during prepile season,” points out Nick Arends, American Crystal Sugar Company’s ag strategy development manager. That’s one reason why American Crystal encourages growers to take prepile delivery sequence into account even prior to planting their beets in the spring. “We would typically recommend 20-30 units less nitrogen on a field that is planned on being harvested early in the prepile season to maximize recoverable sugar per ton,” Arends explains.
Then there’s the other end of the season — i.e., planning for the post-beet crop. “Growers also must take into account what preparations need to be considered for the crop going into that field next season,” says Stacey Camp, agricultural manager for Amalgamated Sugar Company’s Mini-Cassia factory district. “They may need to fall work the ground for the next crop.”
Getting a cover crop well established on harvested beet ground prior to freeze-up also can weigh into the equation. “Some of our growers — particularly in western Nebraska and northeastern Colorado — are on highly erodible soils,” notes Kent Wimmer, director of shareholder relations for Western Sugar Cooperative. “They want to get a cover crop in yet that fall, so that’s another criterion coming into play.”
Whole Fields or Headlands?
Some growers opt to harvest entire fields in order to fulfill their early harvest delivery obligations; others instead remove headlands and “strikeout” field centers on most or all their fields. Again, it’s a matter of grower preference, not something the sugar company dictates.
“In our area, growers much prefer to harvest headlands and strikeouts during prepile and leave the rest of the field for full campaign,” reports Todd Geselius, vice president-agriculture for Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative. “This is largely driven by the concern for getting their other crops harvested in a timely manner after the beet harvest is completed. Since harvesting the headlands and strikeouts is relatively more time consuming, they try to get that done when they have more time available.”
Kent Wimmer says there’s a mixture of both approaches in the large four-state region encompassed by Denver-based Western Sugar. “We might get into an area where we have to mandate early harvest, and some people might not want to. A lot of them will then take out headland rows or otherwise open a field.” Western growers can ‘shift’ early harvest tonnage obligations over to willing neighbors, without penalty. But if no one else agrees to ‘cover’ by delivering more tons, that grower is then obliged to do so.
In Michigan, where many fields are in the 40-acre range, compared to significantly larger fields in states further west, “guys who want to get a lot done at a given time will open up the fields, taking out the headlands and ditch banks. So when they pull in during ‘peak’ harvest, it’s ready to roll,” Paul Pfenninger says. “The downside of that is, if it gets wet and stays wet, where there’s still beets, they tend to soak up some moisture and help dry out the ground a bit. But once you open up that headland and the water sits in those cavities where the beets were, it can be come an issue.”
Most American Crystal growers use prepile to open up all their fields, harvesting headlands and creating strikeouts, says Nick Arends. Some growers — especially in the larger acreage category — do harvest whole fields during the prepile campaign, however. “They have figured out that if they manage their fields correctly and identify high-quality fields, they can utilize the prepile system to their advantage by harvesting entire fields,” Arends explains.
The Compensation Angle
Though each has different features, every sugar company has some type of system in place to compensate growers for the tonnage and/or sugar content they typically sacrifice by harvesting a field in August or early September versus during the main harvest later in the fall. Therein lies both opportunity and risk, depending upon how astutely a grower manages his early harvest schedule.
“With our system, growers are competing against the Red River Valley daily average recoverable sugar/ton throughout the entire prepile period — a number that is not known when growers start delivering prepile beets,” Arends explains. “Growers can still maximize revenue by picking the best quality fields for their farm; but if a grower knows he will be below average quality for that day, [he] can transfer [his] prepile quota to another grower who is willing to deliver additional prepile beets.”
The American Crystal prepile payment system is designed to compensate shareholders for unrealized gains in tonnage and sugar. Growth and sugar premiums are based on “growth per day.“ Tonnage growth is a fixed percentage each day, while sugar growth is calculated on a regression from the beginning of prepile to its end, with an additional factor for stockpile sugar at the 50% complete point. The most common error, Arends says, is that “too many growers continue the ‘status quo’ approach,” routinely delivering from headlands and strikeouts rather than sampling fields prior to prepile and then making a more-educated decision on which fields to prepile in order to maximize revenue for their farm.
Michigan Sugar currently has a tonnage premium for early harvest beets, with plans underway to institute a quality factor as well (though perhaps not in time for the 2011 harvest). The present MSC policy gives growers 97.25% of their station average sugar content, regardless of what their own beets’ content is. That naturally tends to suppress the incentive to incur late-season inputs, such as a final fungicide application for Cercospora leafspot.
Western Sugar pays a per-day tonnage premium on beets delivered during the early harvest campaign. “It’s on an escalating scale: the earlier you harvest, the bigger the premium” explains Kent Wimmer. Also, “during regular harvest we use an assessment of sugar loss to molasses. During early harvest, that sugar loss to molasses assessment is waived.”
No matter how well a producer has planned for the early harvest phase of the growing season, there always will be some unknowns, some uncertainty.
Weather, of course, heads the list. “Weather is the biggest factor that can change the order of fields to be harvested,” affirms Amalgamated’s Stacey Camp. “Also, every grower has other crops to deal with” that influence where and how one allocates labor and equipment at a given time.
Knowing one’s fields “intimately” helps avoid potential problems during prepile — as well as during the rest of the harvest season, emphasizes Minn-Dak’s Tom Knudsen. “I consider [prepile] a great time for growers to shed and harvest their poorer-producing fields or portions of fields,” he says, “leaving the healthiest to last.” That approach maximizes sugar production while keeping poor-quality beets from going into long-term storage, he points out.
“It seems that every grower has a little different philosophy about the prepile process and what is best for their operation,” summarizes Southern Minnesota’s Todd Geselius. “Having said that, growers understand what is important to the cooperative — and they do an outstanding job of making decisions that provide the most benefit for everyone.” — Don Lilleboe