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Beet research focuses on doing more with less

New projects on aphid monitoring and virus yellows control were among the research updates shared with sugar beet growers attending the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) conference at the East of England Showground. Heather Briggs reports.

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Sugar beet growers are having to do more with less and so the aim must be to be smarter and wiser through working with alternative strategies, said BBRO lead scientist Mark Stevens. To that end the BBRO is working closely with a number of partners, including Rothamsted Research, the British Society of Plant Breeders, NIAB, ADAS and the University of Nottingham.


Current BBRO sugar beet research projects are grouped into four key areas: varieties, crop production, crop protection and harvest and storage, all underway with the aim of helping the industry continue to drive yield increases and productivity.


Dr Stevens underlined the importance of developing varieties for the future, with work already being done on development and improvement of sugar beet varieties, with disease resistance forming an important part of the strategy. For example, he said, development of partial resistance to rhizomania, which could potentially decrease yields by 70%, had been a major success. However, this may be short-lived as new strains capable of overcoming resistance have been identified, so new varieties able to withstand the disease need to be assessed.


Another newly-commissioned piece of research is looking at the impact of the mangold fly and novel ways to control it. Early attacks by the pest are currently prevented thanks to neonicotinoid seed treatments, but two or three generations of the fly can occur in the year and later infestations can cause significant canopy damage which result in a fall in sugars in the root.


“We are looking at ways to prevent the later generations attacking the crop through the development of a method which will help predict the time the eggs will hatch so foliar insecticides can be used more effectively.”


Work is also being focused on sources of infection and reinfection by rust and mildew and the genetics behind these diseases. “What we learn about them could influence fungicide use in the future,” said Dr Stevens.


He went on to outline two new projects to be led by BBRO, worth more than £2.6 million over five years, which will develop real-time field monitoring systems and develop resistance to virus yellows.


“Last year did not prove to have a big problem from aphids and virus yellows, but this was mainly due to neonicotinoid seed treatments, on which we should not be over-reliant. We plan to develop varieties which have tolerance, if not partial resistance, to these viruses.”


Recommended N rates still apply

Current recommended rates for nitrogen (N) application were still applicable, said Debbie Sparkes, associate professor in agronomy at the University of Nottingham, responding to circumstantial evidence high yielding sugar beet crops would benefit from more N. 


“The distribution of solar radiation is key to growth, and this peaks in June. Total dry matter, root dry matter and sugar are all produced from the light intercepted by the canopy, and as sugar beet is sown in March/April a lot of radiation is missed as the crop is still establishing.


“Therefore, it is important to promote canopy expansion to maximise the leaf area index as quickly as possible – and this is done by temperature and nitrogen. We can’t do anything about the temperature but we can apply nitrogen.”


Her recommendation, for mineral soils, was to apply N at 100-120kg/hectare early on to facilitate canopy expansion and hence maximise light interception. However, she emphasised, any further increase over the optimum rate of 120kg/ha did not bring any benefits, and, on the contrary, caused a decline in the percentage of sugar in the root as the biomass is passed to the leaves, and trials showed applying N later for a delayed harvest made no impact on the crop.


Prof Sparkes has also reviewed data differences in varieties according to harvesting dates, in response to questions from growers whether some varieties were more suited to late harvesting. She had found no trend or indications of any change in variety ranking as harvest date was delayed, and rather than expanding variety trials to include late harvesting dates, BBRO levy would be better spent on other research priorities, she suggested.


GPS no longer an extra

Precision farming through technology is becoming ever more normal practice for farmers in their quest to enhance efficiency. RTK Farming’s David White found adopting the technology has soon led to better control over many aspects of crop establishment and applications to cereal and row crops, bringing a number of benefits to arable farmers in his region.  


The economics are plain to see; variable seed rates and variable fertiliser rates optimise performance and reduce expensive waste, in addition to saving valuable time. He pointed out by going one step further and using geo-seeding

overlapping and over-seeding could be prevented. 


“Precision is now so great in tests the overlap was just 0.02 metres,” he said, adding auto spray shut-off is also valuable and is now recognised as best practice.


“If we reduce our impact on the soil by reducing tillage, the soil benefits, you save on cultivation costs and you still get good yields.” Strip-till trials carried out by RTK showed less energy was used in crop establishment, strategic nutrition placement kept fertiliser costs down, black-grass and weed beet control improved, as did moisture conservation.


Climate change has resulted in more heavy rainfall events causing run-off and potential loss of expensive herbicides and fertilisers, in addition to environmental damage. “One of the ways you can help to minimise damage is to drill crops into different patterns, particularly if you are on slopes,” he said, adding this was another advantage of using the newly-developed geo-seeding system.


He conceded the investment in technology could be costly, but thanks to improved efficiency it would pay for itself with benefits across the whole farm, particularly if strip-till methods were followed.


“We need to make sure we look after our profit margins in the highly volatile markets we have to deal with, and that means being as efficient as possible to remain competitive.”


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