As quotas disappear later this year, and with Brexit on the horizon, the British sugar industry is free to shape its own destiny. So how can growers make the most of this opportunity? Marianne Curtis reports.
This spring will see an uplift in the amount of sugar beet being drilled, as growers answer British Sugar’s call to grow more of the crop in the post-quota era.
British Sugar managing director Paul Kenward says: “We have a strong and cost-efficient sugar beet industry in the UK and I am consequently very optimistic about the opportunities beyond the old sugar regime. By working together with NFU Sugar and our growers, I anticipate improved returns in the future.
“Nobody can predict future agricultural market prices with complete accuracy. However, if the average EU sugar market price for the 2017/18 marketing year reflected the futures market’s view of world sugar prices at that time, our contracts could deliver beet prices for growers in the region of £23.50/tonne on the one-year contract and £26/t on the three-year contract option.”
However, Andersons is more cautious about prospects in its Outlook 2017 publication.
“The opportunity to commit to a three-year contract has to be the right step for those who can make a positive margin from production before subsidy. However, those numbers of growers are relatively few and not subject to high market rents,” it says.
“If the pound continues to weaken, given the currency-related wheat price improvement, this will make the 2017 beet offer look comparably worse.”
Dan Downs, head of agriculture at British Sugar’s Wissington plant, says the UK crop area was down by 20-25% in 2015 and 2016, a reduction of 20,000 hectares, from a record crop in 2014.
“The sugar market went into decline. There was a large amount of sugar in stock and we could only sell a certain volume [quota] for food use into the EU. Stock will be used up by September 2017, coinciding with the end of the current sugar regime.
“This allows us to expand processing back to where it was before and post-2017 we can sell as much sugar as we like if there’s a market.”
Closure of the Peterborough sugar factory in 1991 and insufficient yields to justify hauling further afield led B.H. Bradshaw and Son, based at Stibbington, near Wansford, Peterborough, Cambs, to abandon sugar beet growing 25 years ago. However, this year the crop is making a come-back to the farm.
“Peterborough closing didn’t help,” says Mike Bradshaw. “We had our own lorry and loaders. It all went to contractors after that and became less viable because of the distance to the factory [Wissington or Bury St Edmunds]. The yields could not keep up with what we needed.”
The 300ha farm on limestone brash has operated on a winter barley/oilseed rape/winter feed wheat rotation for many years, however, concerns about black-grass have prompted him to consider spring cropping alternatives.
“Spring crops don’t tend to grow well on dry land. But we have an irrigation licence which could work on sugar beet.”
After an oilseed rape crop was hit by cabbage stem flea beetle after drilling, he has decided to replace it with 10ha of sugar beet.
Mr Bradshaw has opted for British Sugar’s three-year contract because of the potentially better prices it offers compared with the one-year option.
“If it’s going well enough we could probably get more tonnage anyway. I like a bit of longevity rather than a one-year hit. We’ll get a three-year average of how we’ve done. With one-year if you get a really dry year you might not go in again which might be the wrong decision.”
Contractors will drill, spray and harvest the 10ha crop. “As long as it stands on its own versus oilseed rape and is a good clean-up crop for black-grass and if we get decent yields, hopefully it should work.”
Mr Bradshaw is hoping for a gross margin of about £450/ha. “We’ve looked at growing everything over the years – flax, linseed, peas, beans and spring barley, but nothing works spring-wise unless we can water it.”
British Sugar and the NFU are reporting a healthy uptake of contracts. Paul Bee, of British Sugar, expects the area to rise from 80,000ha to 100,000ha for processing in 2017/18.
“In round figures it is back to where we were, with some current growers expanding area and some new growers.”
Expanding the range of the transport allowance from within a 50-mile to 60-mile radius of sugar plants has attracted some new growers, says NFU Sugar committee member David Papworth.
“They can justify growing it if they are paid for the extra 10 miles.”
Growers can opt for one- or three-year contracts. “I get the impression there is slightly greater take up of the one-year contract than the three-year deal,” says Mr Papworth.
Aside from the economics of growing sugar beet, increasing concerns over black-grass and opportunities for control prior to drilling as well as in the growing crop, are also stimulating interest.
Those returning to sugar beet will notice significant yield gains have been made in recent years, in particular through improved genetics, according to Mr Bee.
“We are now growing 70-100t/ha, whereas we used to grow 40-50t/ha. This was unheard of a few years ago.”
Mr Downs says 80t/ha is a sensible aim from growers. “A lot achieve way beyond this.”
Attention to detail is key to maximising yields, he says. “Growers are now using a full fungicide programme of at least two sprays. Good chemistry can be used on beet crops. Because it is not a flowering crop, neonics can still be used.”
Sources: Pam Chambers (P.C.), UPL and Edward Hagues (E.H.), product manager root crops, Bayer.
Continuing research on seed advancement by companies such as Germains Seed Technology offers growers the opportunity to plant seed which is at an advanced stage of germination, he adds.
Optimising number of plants per hectare is also key, says Mr Bee. “We’ve done a lot of work to encourage higher plant populations within a window of 80,000-100,000 plants/ha.”
Drills have improved, with faster speeds and improved accuracy and increasing numbers of growers are benefiting from these developments through using contractors, says Mr Bee. “In the old days everyone had their own drill and harvester. Now contractors drill and harvest and with an ex-farm contract a grower can either join a haulage group or British Sugar operates a harvest and haulage scheme where it collects.”
For growers achieving good yields, sugar beet is a good break crop to have, says Pam Chambers, technical support manager, UPL.
“If it is on heavy soil and not giving good yields think carefully. Look at spend. A high proportion of spend is on seed and herbicides, varying from £100-£200/ha depending on products and weed burden. Take all this into account.”
There has been a trend towards using two fungicide sprays for all except the earliest lifted sugar beet crops.
Recommended timing for the first spray is around mid- to late-July and the second, four weeks later around the end of August.
While many achieve the first spray timing, sometimes the second one proves difficult due to clashes with harvest, however, a prolonged interval is risky in high disease pressure situations.
Data from 10 Bayer trials conducted over the last six years show that a first spray of Escolta (cyproconazole + trifloxystrobin) provides an average 6.7t/ha increase in yield, with a second spray lifting yield by a further 4.8t/ha. At the 2017-18 base price of £22/t, this is said to deliver an extra £250/ha over untreated trials.
The proportion of treated sugar beet seed drilled is said to have increased significantly in the last five-10 years. For example, Poncho Beta (beta-cyfluthrin + clothianidin) targets aphids which can carry beet virus yellows.
Bayer product manager, root crops Edward Hagues says: “For most sugar beet crops, Poncho Beta gives enough protection to see it through the critical stages. As the aphid population has developed resistance to more actives, seed treatments have become vital in protecting against viruses.”
Source: Edward Hagues, product manager root crops, Bayer.