21 November 1997

If only sums were simple as harvest…

THE first weekend in November saw the giant six-row Cebeco harvester, driven by Wisbech-based contractor Nigel Harrison, forging its way through 9.4ha (23 acres) of Roberta and Madison sugar beet.

Conditions were ideal for harvesting, neither too wet nor too dry, and the roots were hauled off the field with a low ground pressure, 15t self-propelled trailer and tipped into our old sleeper-lined silage clamps to await collection. Very little mud on the road and minimal damage to soil structure provided an ideal entry for drilling winter wheat.

The hauliers, Mountains of Sleaford, arrived on the Monday to clean and transport 17 loads to the factory at Newark. We have been moved, by British Sugar, from supplying roots to their factory at Bury St Edmunds (72 miles away) to Newark, some 24 miles nearer, which seems logical.

Logic soon went out of the window, however, when the first load went over the weighbridge and was found to be slightly overweight: The tailgate was opened to allow some beet off the back and the driver sent away to join the queue again like a naughty schoolboy. The result – 17 loads and 18 permits. Where else, I wonder, does a commercial company take such Draconian measures?

We received our weekly beet invoice on Nov 12 for the loads which went on Nov 3 and were pleasantly surprised with the returns. Table 1 provides a breakdown and comparison with the first 17 loads processed in early November last year.

The yield in 1996 was easy to estimate since all the beet processed came off an area of 8.88ha (22 ares) to yield 39.57t/ha (16.02t/acre) of clean beet or 51.56t/ha (20.9t/acre) adjusted weight.

This year the area harvested was 9.4ha (23.2 acres) and I estimate at least another 10 loads are left in the clamp. This would put the yield at about 60t/ha (24.3t/acre) of clean beet or a phenomenal 70t/ha (28.3t/acre) of adjusted weight even allowing for a drop in sugar content while in store for three weeks.

The bad news is that only half this yield will be paid at the A and B quota price, the rest will have to take its chance as C beet.

But there is worse to come. British Sugars memorandum of September this year advised growers that the interim price of contracted beet was to be £30.17 an adjusted tonne – a reduction of 20% over the previous year. Add to that the reduction in transport allowance and the jewel in our gross margin crown begins to shine less brightly.

Last year we were able to make a profit on the transport rate of £1.64/t, but this year we have only managed to negotiate a rate just below our allowance. The overall effect of the reduced beet price and transport rate, will be to reduce the value per tonne by 22.7% on last year.

Taking last years yields and variable costs as an example, and substituting this years prices, we find that the gross margin for sugar beet in 1996 would have been only £152.55/ha (£61.76/acre) better than wheat and equal to oilseed rape.

This year is slightly more difficult to predict, since we not only have to pay back monies for imbalances calculated by British Sugar on last years campaign, but we are also uncertain of the price of C beet for this year.

I cant help thinking that the grower loses all ways: I find it difficult to square this with the comments by British Sugars deputy managing director, Clive Francis, on Oct 31 with his proposals to reform the beet contract.

British Sugars objectives are "not about paying you less money" and apparently their proposal is "to create £35m additional profitability for growers." Perhaps as an act of good faith Mr Francis would like to pay an advance on this years crop and sort out the ridiculous debacle over top tares?

I hope the NFU sticks to its guns; we all know sugar beet is becoming less profitable compared to other crops (Table 2) and it could be possible that British Sugar will have to concede a point or two rather than threaten to withdraw their package.

Growers might just think twice before allocating sugar beet to their rotation in future: High input, high risk and low returns are not options they will want to consider in the leaner years ahead.n

Beet harvest at Easton Lodge drew some pleasantly surprising returns.Calculating precise profit margins is another matter…

Table 1: First sugar beet lift (17 loads)


19961997

Total dirty (t)402.54406.22

Total clean (t)351.37358.71

Total tare (%)1312

top tare (%)77

Average sugar (%)19.418.0

Total adjusted weight (t)457.8761424.2643

Total value of beet (£)17,271.0712,800.07

Value (£/t)37.7230.17

Table 2: Gross margin estimates for EastonLodges 1997 harvest


WheatOSRSugar beet

Yield (t/ha)7.623.78*48.71

Price (£/t)x80.00×160.00+24.70

Return (£/ha)609.60604.801203.14

Area aid (£/ha)257.24454.71-

Total income (£/ha)866.841059.511203.14

Variable costs (£/ha)256.58244.56448.20

Gross margin (£/ha)610.26814.95754.94

1996 Gross margin (£/ha)865.65946.761060.07

* Five-year average

+ 35.5t/ha AB price @ £30.17/t)

13.21t/ha C Beet @ £10.00/t) Average price/t £24.70

x November spot prices.