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Talking arable with Hannah Darby: It's difficult to know what the long-term future of sugar beet will be for us

Winter seems to be progressing in the normal way, with December being suitably wet and the last field destined for winter wheat will now be planted with spring wheat. 

I have learnt that selling most of the spring wheat harvest the following spring gives the ultimate flexibility.

 

It will be the third time the mobile seed dressers have been to the farm and we must be on plan D at least.

 

I am not too disheartened as the spring wheat last year has provided a good gross margin with the reduced growing costs going some way to making up for the reduced output.

 

This will be our third year of growing KWS Cochise, which has provided a significant yield improvement over other varieties and a quality market this year. With a quantity still to leave the farm, drilled in late March 2020, it yielded on average 6.3 tonnes per hectare over a wide range of soil types.

 

Sugar beet

 

While harvest 2020 provided some highlights, the biggest low light was our sugar beet harvest. We finished lifting our fields in December, which is early for us, but we knew through test digs and looking at the fields that there was little chance of a positive return on our investment and planting winter wheat earlier could mitigate some of the disaster.

 

Sugar beet has been a significant crop for us with 40ha being planted annually on our 3,000t contract. In recent years we have reduced the amount of cultivation passes to establish our sugar beet and it has been over 25 years since we last ploughed. Small sugar beet can easily be buried or decapitated by wind blow and keeping a quantity of straw on top has helped to mitigate this.

 

Last year we strip tilled to establish the beet behind a cover crop of oats and vetch. It was a little trial and error and our old combine wasn’t great at spreading the previous year’s wheat straw the whole width of the header.

 

The cover crop was established in the strip in the autumn and desiccated with glyphosate in the spring. Drilling commenced in the second week of April and despite the lack of rainfall, where there wasn’t a mat of straw the beet came up quickly.

 

Unfortunately, the combination of the usual fenland frosts in mid-May and the varied establishment in places meant that a significant area had to be redrilled.

 

Sugar beet growers realise that the seed cost is the highest input you will encounter in growing the crop and areas redrilled are always behind the weeds, making herbicide timings difficult.

 

As the season progressed, we saw a few aphids, sprayed when we reached threshold and watched our fields turn slowly yellow due to virus. It was worse on our earlier drilling (as opposed to mid-April), where the strip was established in the autumn and where the beet was redrilled.

 

Cercospora

 

Our stressed beet was then infected with cercospora despite a seemingly robust fungicide programme. All in all, our average adjusted beet yield over all drilling dates and soil types was 38.7t/ha. Within that tonnage was a trial variety with a level of virus tolerance and test digs indicated a potential increase in root weight, but all areas were affected by the cercospora.

 

Before the derogation on neonicotinoid seed dressings we had already decided to reduce our area from 40ha to 17ha to help mitigate the risk. While the addition of the seed dressing is very welcome, the advent of new disease threats alongside a year by year approach make it difficult to know what the long-term future of sugar beet growing will be for us.

 

In the meantime, we will continue to grow a wide variety of different spring and winter crops to try and spread the risk of extreme weather and pest pressures.


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