Northern Colorado sugar beet farmers racing the weather to finish the 2015 harvest |

Northern Colorado sugar beet farmers racing the weather to finish the 2015 harvest

Sugar beet growers across northern Colorado are racing to complete their harvest before winter sets in. The official start of winter is Dec. 21, 2015, but to beet farmers, it is not so much the date that is important as it is the temperature.

Tony Bruguiere | | The day temperatures rose above freezing, but the nightly below freezing temperatures put a heavy coating of frost on the sugar beet foliage. It is a stark reminder that the end of sugar beet season is coming and the reason that Chris Schnorr is harvesting his fields at 2 a.m.

All sugar beet farmers in Colorado are members of the Western Sugar Cooperative. Western Sugar has strategically located drop-off points throughout the growing area. Each drop-off point has a machine called a piler and growers take their beets to the closest piler. At the piler the beets are weighed, sampled for sugar content, and put into a huge pile that can contain as much as 73,000 tons of beets.

Below freezing nights and warming days pose no problems for the beets. The piler will close for the season when the temperature goes down to zero for a couple of nights and does not rise above freezing during the day. At that point, the ground freezes and the piler closes, which ends the harvest.

Tony Bruguiere | | In the pre-dawn light, it becomes easier to see the Schnorr Farms massive 4WD John Deere 9410R tractor as it rises above the distant trees and is silhouetted against the sky. The tractor pulls semi-trucks through muddy fields while they are being loaded by the digger.

The diggers will extract beets from the frozen ground, but large chunks of frozen dirt will also be transferred to the trucks and sent on to the piler. The chunks will not pass through the screens of the piler and will be perceived as beets to the scale. One of the measures that growers are paid on is the weight of beets. You cannot make sugar out of dirt and Western Sugar only pays for sugar beets.

Schnorr Farms uses the piler located north of Wellington, Colo. The weather conditions at the piler determine whether the piler is accepting beets. If it is too warm, as it was early this season, the beets are better off in the ground and the piler will close. If it rains, as it did this year, the ground at the piler will turn into a quagmire and heavy trucks will get stuck, so the piler closes.

Tony Bruguiere | | Chris Schnorr is racing the full onset of winter as he pushes to get his sugar beet harvest completed before the first hard freeze. There are no easy days during harvest time, and this day began at 2 a.m.

The harvest was supposed to start the first week in October but the piler was closed for a week due to warm weather. It was also closed a number of days because of rain. Without the piler, growers have no place to put their beets. No piler — no harvest.

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Already over a week behind in his harvest schedule and having to contend with wet fields and the unpredictable weather in northern Colorado, Chris Schnorr of Schnorr Farms pulled out all the stops to insure that his 390 acres of sugar beets were harvested before the ground froze.

Tony Bruguiere | | The tractor and the Red River digger are in a pool of light from the huge tractor coming from behind. The Budweiser plant is in the background. It is 3am and the harvest team is just one hour into its fourteen hour day.

Schnorr decided to harvest the three fields along I-25 in Fort Collins starting at 2 a.m., and working straight through until 4 p.m. It is easier to dig at night or early morning because of the cooler temperatures, which allows the tractors to get through the fields better. There was a soft freeze at 29 degrees and less mud for the trucks to get stuck in.

Schnorr did not skimp on the equipment either. Each night you could see the pools of light from 10 trucks, two defoliators, two diggers, a beet cart, and a pull tractor moving through the inky blackness of a cold, cloudless night. They were still there at dawn and continued into the late afternoon.

Tony Bruguiere | | From the time that the Western Sugar piler opens at 4 a.m., there is a steady stream of trucks racing to get sugar beets from the fields to the pile before the cold weather closes the harvest. This drop-off point in Wellington, Colo., is one of 14 operated by the cooperative in Northern Colorado.

It took three and a half days to finish the 160 acres in Fort Collins. After that, only 100 acres remained which are located near Windsor. Those beets will go to the drop-off point at Greeley. The 2015 sugar beet harvest is almost complete and the weather has cooperated for an above average yield. ❖

Tony Bruguiere | | Schnorr Farms has two harvesting platforms or diggers that start operation at 2 a.m., and work until late afternoon. This digger is a Red River and it will load a steady stream of semi-trucks that will make the round trip to the piler in Wellington, Colo.