WAHPETON, N.D. - Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative was supposed to have been done slicing sugar beets June 5, but is expected to continue through the end of the month - perhaps into July.

The company typically shoots for a May 20 end date but is behind because of a large 2017 crop and an expensive equipment breakdown in March.

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"Here we sit. It's June 5 and we're still slicing beets," says Kurt Wickstrom, Minn-Dak president and CEO. "I think we have 240,000 tons to slice."

Things were going fine until a key piece of beet-processing equipment, the company's diffusion tower, broke down in mid-March, interrupting processing for about 13 days.

A diffusion tower extracts about 85 percent of the sugar and there is only one per factory - no backup. It works like a big grain auger, slowly lifting the beet pulp up a 115-foot tower as hot water cascades down, flowing through the beets and removing the sugar. "When your diffusion tower fails, your whole factory stops because you don't have a backup diffusion tower," he said.

BMA, the German manufacturer who made the tower, had done a detailed inspection last summer and concluded it was in good shape.

"None of us could have anticipated it," Wickstrom said of the failure.

BMA flew in some custom-made screens from Germany. Other equipment was formed at machine shops "from Winnipeg to Minneapolis," Wickstrom said.

Wickstrom was "very disappointed that it failed, but we did everything we possibly could to minimize the downside," he said.

About 130,000 tons of beets would have been processed through that down time. Minn-Dak had expected to process 2.56 million tons but now expect to slice 2.43 million to 2.46 million tons.

Warm May

That breakdown was followed by the third-warmest May on record, threatening to allow piles of beets to rot. But the beets are storing better than expected.

In mid-May, a pile at the factory that was simply covered in plastic had about a foot deep of deteriorated beets on the top that insulated the beets below. Even after 90-degree days in May, the piles are "frozen to the top," insulated by a slimy layer on the surface.

"We had a nice cold winter to get them frozen very hard. That's certainly helping us now and paying off," Wickstrom said.

The company is working on its final exterior pile and then will go to its three sheds with 80,000 tons each. Minn-Dak for the first time leased "chillers" to keep the beets in those sheds frozen. "We added a chiller system to the middle shed five weeks ago, and when we opened the doors to put the chiller in that shed, there were ice chunks on the floor," Wickstrom says.

Last November, Minn-Dak projected a "conservative" $32.50 per ton for the 2017 crop, based on average quality sugar. The company made an interim payment June 1 based on $30 per ton for average quality beets.

Wickstrom doesn't anticipate changing that payment from the $30 to $32.50 per ton range, even with the costs of the breakdown. Shareholder costs vary, and most growers can break even or better at $32 a ton, he said.

The two big unknowns are whether the beets will store for 25 to 30 days and how much and how quickly Minn-Dak's insurance company will cover the multi-million dollar repairs. "It's obviously a very large claim," Wickstrom says, but the company insures other beet cooperatives and "we're optimistic they'll be fair."

The delayed slice campaign will mean the company's 2018 crop harvest date will be around Sept. 18. Over the past five years, the harvest has started as early as late August but the late slice means the factory won't be ready for the new crop that early.

Crystal Sugar wraps up

American Crystal Sugar Co., based in Moorhead, Minn., completed its sugar beet slice May 23.

American Crystal harvested more than 12 million tons, a record.

"It was a very good storage year," said Brian Ingulsrud, American Crystal's vice president for agriculture. "We had a cooler than normal spring which really helped for good storage of the beets."