Varietal improvements, good agronomy and minimising lifting and storage losses will hold the key to the future success of UK sugar beet, says British Sugar’s Karl Carter.

At last week’s Beet UK event, Mr Carter launched the UK Beet Yield Challenge, the son of the company’s 20:20 Vision programme, with an aim for all growers to achieve 70 adjusted tonnes per hectare within the next three to five years.

“Biologically, agronomically and in terms of recovery efficiencies, it is possible,” says Mr Carter.

“Twenty-five percent of growers are already achieving yields in excess of 70t/ha.”

So how will most growers be helped to make a step-change in production, given that the current average is 58t/ha?

That’s the task for Bury St Edmunds and Cantley agricultural business manager Robin Limb, who has been seconded for 12 months to run the national yield programme.

Technical excellence is crucial, he believes, and already the gap between the good growers and the bad ones is beginning to widen.

“Since 1999, the top 10% most profitable growers [see graph] have lifted adjusted tonnage by 4t/ha.

In the same period, the bottom 10% have only managed an increase of less than 1t/ha.”

A no-holes-barred approach will be essential, Mr Limb believes.

“We’ll be looking at everything.

There will be specific on-farm initiatives in conjunction with growers and advisers.

We’ll be looking at good relationships between the trade and research and development.

Downstream, we need further improvements with harvesting and delivery.”

While restructuring, thanks to reform of the sugar regime and the likely adoption by British Sugar of a post-reform outgoers’ scheme, will help move the industry forward, specific technical initiatives will be important, Mr Limb explains.

“We need to look at maximising yield in a given field – for instance opportunities for headlands with ELS and growing crops on the best areas of the field in a specific module with no overlaps.

Yields on the headlands are at best three-quarters of the middle of the field and growing costs on those headlands probably double.”

Such an approach could be facilitated by techniques including digital mapping and GPS-guided steering.

“The most forward potato growers are already using similar technology,” says Mr Limb.

For plant breeders, the focus is very much on yield, Broom’s Barns’ Mike May says.

“We have got rhizo out of the way.

Varieties in trials will deliver more step changes in yield – 105-107% of controls.”

Research is also focusing on the yield benefits from using fungicides, and in the medium term a benchmarking programme, expected to be available from 2008, should allow growers to assess performance against themselves and against the season.

“Growers will input details on variety, drilling date, soil type and weather, and we will be able to help them forecast yields from a harvest point of view, which will help with [campaign] scheduling.

julian.gairdner@rbi.co.uk