By TOM LUTEY | Billings Gazette

Montana sugar beet farmers have piled up a near-record harvest this fall, enough to keep factories making sugar in Billings and Sidney well into February.

For the second year in a row, Sidney-area farmers have piled a million tons of beets to feed the Sidney Sugars factory near the Montana-North Dakota border. The sugar content was about 17.9 percent.

Sugar beets, irrigated with Yellowstone River water, have been a bright spot in Eastern Montana, where extreme drought devastated dryland crops this year.

“We got about 31.25 tons to an acre. That gives us just over a million tons. We’re happy about that,” said Duane Peters, agriculture manger for Sidney Sugars.

The sugar industry pumps about $100 million into the Montana economy annually.

Eastern Montana farmers stopped digging beets Oct. 25, which is a typical finish. But the growers fired up their beet diggers in mid-September to deal with an expected bumper crop. In 2016, a larger-than-normal harvest kept Sidney Sugars processing into March.

Western Sugar Cooperative farmers in southern Montana harvested 36.4 tons per acre, the second largest yield for sugar beet farmers feeding the Western factory in Billings. The sugar count was 17.4 percent.

Farms in southcentral Montana started out with an exceptionally wet spring, but not the cool temperatures that hurt plant growth. Fair fall weather helped harvest, with the exception of a few days.

“We dealt with some warm and wet weather early on in the harvest, which caused us some delays, but the weather straightened out towards the end of October,” said Randall Jobman, Western’s vice president of agriculture in the northern region. “The beets went into the piles in good shape, and we expect to finish the campaign in mid February.”

In the Lovell, Wyoming, area, sugar beet tons were down to 27.9 and a sugar count of 17.2 percent.

Sugar beets are stored outside in piles where a steady stream of factory-bound trucks are loaded from September through February. Hot days are the big concern for piled beets, which naturally generate heat that can turn to rot if temperatures are too hot.

This fall, temperatures were fairly moderate.