5 March 1999

Be patient when sowing beet and reap the reward

By Edward Long

CARE will be needed with seed-beds, sowing date and the order of sowing if beet is to make the best start this year.

Growers whose drilling schedules were disrupted by a month of rain last April will be keen to make an early start this season, notes British Sugars Simon Fisher.

But after the wet winter seed-beds could be dry on top but wet underneath, leaving them more prone to compaction. Great care will be needed to prevent the advantage of early drilling being cancelled by poor establishment, he says.

"The message for this season is to be patient and wait for suitable conditions before making a start. Growers should use flotation tyres, low ground pressures and not go in silly early with the drill."

Trials conducted over many years by IACR Brooms Barn and BS show that there is a sugar yield increased of 0.02t/ha for every day the crop is in the ground in March, with an increasing root penalty for crops left until after Apr 10.

But soils must be warming. Beet seed will not germinate in seed-beds below 3C and even at 5C germination will be too slow for effective establishment, advises Mr Fisher.

The order in which varieties are sown will also be critical.

"Celt, Duke, Madison and Zulu establish particularly well suited, and Celt, Madison, Nicola and Zulu are low bolting types when sown early," says NIABs sugar beet specialist Simon Kerr.

"Ones to avoid for an ultra early start include Jackpot, Camilla, and Madrid."

According to BSs Robin Limb, modern varieties have no significant bolting weaknesses. "But any of them will bolt if exposed to 40 cold days with a maximum temperature of 12C between Mar 1 and the end of May.

"We know from long-term weather records that there is an average of 30 cold days in March, 15 in April, and five in May. So, to avoid exceeding the 40-day threshold, crops should not go in before Mar 10."

Using primed seed could boost early performance and reduce bolting risk. In BS trials bolting from an early drilled crop sown with Advantage treated seed was reduced by 20%. This 9% of seed is Advantage treated. &#42

Oldies did best in 98

Some of last years best performances came from the oldest varieties, notes NIAB. In trials at 14 sites Zulu, which was first listed in 1992, gave a sugar yield of 102.6. Next best was 101.2 from the 1993 listed variety Roberta, and third highest was Duke at 100.5. Zulus growers income score of 103.2 was head and shoulders above the rest, Roberta giving 100.8, Madison 100.7, Alexa 100.4, Duke 100.3, and Celt just 99.2.

Seed potatoes free of disease

STORED seed potato quality is holding up well, says the Scottish Agricultural Science Agency, which certifies crops and has inspectors on-farm now.

But most seed producers are more worried about availability than quality. Some growers are receiving only 50% of orders placed last July.

"For crops harvested before the autumn, the disease situation is better than usual, although there is some powdery scab that has been graded out," says a SASA spokesperson.

However, cold, wet autumn and winter conditions mean 4% of the crop is unlifted. Yields have also been less than expected.

Some varieties, including Maris Peer, Maris Piper and Desiree, are becoming more available. Prices are £250-275/t ex-Scotland.

Controlled varieties Marfona, Estima and Maris Bard are tighter and fetching £450/t. Agrico UKs Ronnie Rice says shortages are severe.

"For next years crop, we are planting large or small outgrades, but avoiding marginal stocks. Some people are also cutting tubers. Thats OK for ware, but were not keen on it for seed."

Air-burn in tubers harvested in the wet and early sprouting of seed over-wintered in the ground are additional worries.

"Bacterial soft rots could also be a problem," Mr Rice adds. "There may be unrotted tubers with high bacterial levels which could break down after delivery or even after planting." &#42

Grouping reduces overheads

COULD farm grouping help you control overhead costs? According to Bidwells consultant Simon Ward it can deliver big economies of scale without sacrificing the identity of the individual farms involved.

With low prices, low returns and increasingly volatile markets all farms must keep the pressure on overhead costs, he says. On combinable crop farms those costs range from £215-370 /ha (£87-150/acre). The difference represents over 2.4t/ha (1t/acre) extra yield.

"The best spend just £87/acre on overheads and very few need to spend over £95/acre. Yet lots are spending up to £150/acre."

Bidwell benchmarks suggest that labour can be cut to nearer £86/ha (£35/acre), including own labour. And machinery costs should be near £123/ha (£50/acre).

Target depreciation, the biggest machinery cost, by planning repairs to existing equipment to avoid breakdowns, rather than buying new, he urges. "It works out much cheaper."

Economies of scale can also be pursued, even if purchasing, renting or contract farming is impossible.

"Farm grouping, where two or more farms set up a company to hire equipment and labour back, achieves economies of scale without handing over control of the farm."

Each farm still organises its own crop management, IACS claim and grain marketing. But pooled labour and equipment bring big cost savings, explains Mr Ward.

"Several farms have already gone down this route and others are following. But you cant wait for someone to come to you. Your neighbour may go to somebody else instead. You need to initiate the discussion." &#42

FARMGROUPINGS

&#8226 Two or more farms combine labour and machinery for economies of scale.

&#8226 Joint company formed and equipment hired back.

&#8226 Farms run separately.

&#8226 730ha total is a good goal.

&#8226 One combine, one sprayer etc.

&#8226 Less labour biggest saving.

&#8226 Step towards contract farming.

Bidwell benchmarks

£/ha (£/acre)

Labour 86 (35)

Machinery

– repairs 25 (10)

– fuel 15 (6)

– depreciation 62 (25)

– insnc etc. 12 (5)

TOTAL 215 (87)