Update: 4/1/21

I was flooded with suggestions and explanations and I can't thank everybody enough. This explanation actually came in as an app message, and well, I think it speaks for itself:

To Michael Foth, yes the big white piles are gypsum. It is supplied by my business Rocky Mountain Compost to farmers to help amend their soil to make their crops yield better. It helps with alkaline also because it pushes the salts back into the earth. I hope this answers the mystery of the big white piles. - Lesli

Original Story: 

In a farm field near Laurel is a big row of the neatly dumped white stuff. I've driven by these weird lumps of "something" for months and every time I do I wonder what they are. From the interstate, a quarter-mile away, they appear brilliantly white in the sun. Driving closer, they look more like large, dirty, snow piles.

I've seen these piles in other fields around Yellowstone County and today I finally stopped to get a closer look at the unusual mounds. From the next picture, they look almost gravel-like.

Michael Foth ~ Townsquare Media Billings

However, it is not rocks or gravel or sand. It was almost powdery when I stepped on it, and I still couldn't determine what the material is or what it's going to be used for. I thought maybe it's some kind of fertilizer or soil amendment.

I then reached out to four of my trusted, knowledgeable, rural Montana friends, who surely would know immediately what the odd white piles are for. I sent all of them the pics seen in this story.

Michael Foth ~ Townsquare Media Billings

Interestingly, I got various answers.

Paul - Farmer and co-worker

My co-worker Paul is a real-deal farmer/rancher north of town who raises cattle and grows wheat and hay and other farmer stuff. He was the first person I asked because he usually (like 99% of the time) has a correct answer to my farmer-type questions. To my disbelief, he didn't know.

Bryan - Laurel sugar beet farmer

This pile of white stuff is near Laurel, so the next person I asked was my buddy Bryan, whose family has farmed sugar beets and corn in the Laurel area for generations. He thought the piles are probably lime. Bryan said it is traditionally used to cover smells (like in outhouses) and used in places like chicken pens to neutralize the soil. This didn't make a lot of sense in this case, considering there were literally tons of the stuff, just sitting in a dormant field.

Matt - My potato farmer brother

My brother was the next person I pestered on my quest to find out what the out-of-place looking piles of stuff are. He's knowledgable about fertilizers and soil and ph chemistry and what-knot. He thought maybe it was bentonite. I disagreed. Bentonite is found in Montana and has a lot of interesting uses, none of them particularly agricultural.

Jason - Buddy that literally knows everything

Jason is one of those friends that knows answers to just about anything I ask. If he doesn't know immediately, he will either; find out and get back to me, or give me the name and phone number of someone to call. Friends like Jason are awesome. He said the weird white piles of stuff are gypsum, adding that it is used to treat alkaline soil and help make it fertile.

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Muddling the answer to my "what the heck is it?" question, is a Montana State University report that mentions sugar beet lime. It states,

Sugar beet lime (sometimes referred to as spent lime, hereafter referred to as beet lime), is a byproduct of the raw sugar purification process. The product is currently available for free at beet processing plants in Billings and Sidney. However, shipping and application costs can be substantial given that high rates of lime are generally needed to change soil pH.

This answer makes a lot of sense, considering our proximity to the beet plant in Billings. Do you know what the white stuff is? Tap the Message Us button on the Mobile App or leave a Comment.

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