Beet Storage Critical to Operational Success
Brian Ingulsrud, Vice President – Agriculture
A critical aspect of American Crystal Sugar Company’s operational strategy is our beet storage. We believe it is the key ingredient which allows us to produce beet sugar more efficiently than any other company in the world. This year’s weather along with the condition of beets going into our piles have created some unique challenges to which we have responded with some new operational strategies.
Weather forecasters were right on target this summer when they saw a strong El Nino condition develop and projected a warm fall and winter. The temperatures in the Red River Valley between October 1 and December 31 were over 7 degrees warmer than normal. In addition to the warmer than normal temperatures, the beets in the southern portion of our growing region were very dehydrated. Past experience shows that beets are a lot like humans in that they need to be properly hydrated in order to keep from overheating.
The term sugar is very broad in that it includes several different molecular structures of carbohydrates. Sugar beet factories are designed to extract only one of those, sucrose, from our beets. If beets are stored at higher than desired temperatures, their sucrose molecules get converted into other types of sugar which we call inverts. We can’t convert those invert sugars into the white table sugar we sell but it is even worse since those inverts tie up other still intact sucrose molecules and keep them from being converted into table sugar as well.
This fall it quickly became apparent our beets were not cooling in the piles as quickly as we like and so we were losing a significant amount of sucrose and creating inverts. We then started to experiment with several new techniques to help the beets cool faster. The pictures below show a few of these.
These pictures show a snow groomer climbing a beet pile. This fall we used groomers like this to move beets and get more air moving through the piles. The picture on the right shows an example of the beets on the shoulders of a pile after they were pushed around by the groomer. This did help to cool the beets however by this time much of the damage was already done since once the sucrose molecules are broken you can’t put them back together.
This picture shows an example of where we drove a backhoe to the top of a beet pile and dug out a channel of warm beets.
Another new procedure the Ag staff developed this year was to break up the ice crust which normally develops on the top of our deep-freeze piles. This crust gets created when we blow air from the bottom of the pile towards the top. The warm air from the center of the pile comes out at the top creating condensation which then freezes into a crust and slows subsequent air movement. The picture on the left below shows the path of where the ice layer was broken using a groomer fitted with a cultivator. The IR picture on the right shows warm air escaping exactly where the crust was broken up. We believe this process will help freeze our deep freeze piles in less time and therefore reducing the electrical usage for our fans and the amount of cold weather we need to complete the freezing process.
The above are just a few examples of the thought and work the Ag staff put into reducing the impacts of a difficult storage year. We sometimes learn the most when we are challenged and I think this year is providing a perfect example as we continue to improve on our most important competency, beet storage.