9 November 2001

Opening too good to

miss…

With a tenth of the UKs

sugar beet production

changing hands next season,

Andrew Blake talks to two

newcomers to the crop

OFFERED the one-off chance to get into sugar beet, Cambs grower Maurice Large grabbed at British Sugars recently closed transfer scheme.

Although his father grew sugar beet many years ago in Norfolk, the crop has not figured on the 80ha (200 acres) at LM Farms, Wisbech, since before Mr Large took it over eight years ago.

"I wanted to get into it because it will give us more flexibility. Just now it certainly is not because I want to make money!"

Even though he paid less than the widely touted £30/t for his 600t contract, the immediate economics remain questionable, he says. "But I am surrounded by people growing it, and with things as they are we have to diversify."

Cropping until now on the unirrigated, mainly silt soil has been pre-pack potatoes on contract to G W Smith & Sons, onions, spring beans and wheat. Next spring he plans about 14ha (35 acres) of sugar beet for delivery to Wissington factory in autumn 2002.

"It will give us another crop to increase our area of first wheats and provide better overall returns."

Mr Large reckons he can do most of the beet fieldwork with his existing machinery, which includes a Hardi tractor-mounted 12m sprayer. "We already plough everything. I shall use a contractor for lifting. I have not decided yet what to do about drilling, but that too will probably be on contract, because it needs specialist equipment."

Independent agronomist, John Carney, who advises on other crops on the farm, will be chief source of variety and day-to-day input recommendations. "He has sugar beet experience," says Mr Large. "But I will also look to British Sugars area manager, Will Homes, for guidance. It is all part of the partnership.

"The main things I need to know about are weed and disease control, where I am not so familiar with what is involved. But it should not be any more difficult than with my other crops."

The nearest known rhizomania is some distance away, near Kings Lynn.

Seed-bed challenge

Achieving satisfactory seed-beds on the relatively heavy fenland silt is likely to be Mr Larges main problem with the new crop, says Gorfield-based agronomist John Carney.

"Getting this land right for beet is not easy in a wet spring. It is not as heavy as some round here, but establishment is the key to keeping on top of weeds. 90% of control comes from good leaf cover."

Knotgrass is likely to be the biggest weed threat along with oilseed rape, the legacy of previous cropping.

On the plus side the new crop will offer an extra chance to tackle grass weeds. By largely avoiding second wheats, infestations have already been wound down quite well. "The beet will provide a good opportunity to clear up blackgrass with Laser or one of the other similar fop or dim graminicides," says Mr Carney.

With only one sprayer Mr Large will have to pay particular attention to cleaning between treatments to avoid damaging the beet with traces of cereal herbicides or the beans with beet products, he warns. "Ideally he would have a dedicated beet sprayer."

Cereal sulphonylureas, potentially lethal to beet, are unlikely to figure much in the spring, because most control is carried out by other autumn chemicals. "But Debut for the beet is deadly on pulses," he notes.

Switched quota

Mr Sellars quota is part of the 63,000t switched into the York area, mainly from the Newark-factory region, to match production more closely to factory capacity, says British Sugars Paul Bee.

BS paid an incentive of £5/t on the first 40,000t of that within 30 miles of the factory on a "first-come, first-served basis", he says.