19 September 1998

THUMPING GOOD BEET

The host of BEET UK refuses to take excellent crop performance for granted. Gilly Johnson reports.

"ITS our most profitable crop – a vital part of the arable rotation." That said, BEET UKs host grower Philip Wynn is far from complacent. He believes sugar beet at the Nevile Estate could be even more profitable. Coming under close scrutiny are the bills involved.

"Seventeen years ago we were spending £130-140 to produce an acre of beet. Compare that with our inputs today on the demonstration site – the total is just £111-120/acre, even with Gaucho-treated seed."

The difference is thanks to "cheaper spray bills, and more accurate crop nutrition," he reckons. Soil sampling is critical and the beet is only given just what it needs, and no more. Careful placement of P and K, and the exploitation of organic manures have built up good fertility. The use of liquid fertiliser means spring spray treatments can be combined with pre-em herbicides – shrinking operational costs to a minimum.

Mr Wynn is continually exploring new ways of fine-tuning inputs – but without jeopardising profit potential. "I think our nutrition policy is about right now. But theres still room for improvement on establishment. Attention to detail on the seedbed is our priority – its the greatest determinant of yield." A rubber-tracked crawler has been brought in to improve the flexibility of the spring cultivation programme, as well as being an integral part of effective autumn cereal establishment.

With a keen eye on costs, seed is under scrutiny. "Seed price has risen. It accounts for the greatest part – nearly half – of our variable costs. Back in the 1980s it was more like 15%. We are still putting the same weight of seed through the drill as we were then."

Characteristics

"However, modern varieties have better germination, vigour and emergence – surely we could make more use of these characteristics, and cut seed rates?"

Mr Wynn is experimenting with a wider seed spacing than the traditional 162mm (6 7/8 inch). "But we will need to improve seed placement – so we are looking for a suitable replacement for our 12-year-old drill, either bought or on hire."

Again, a refusal to stand still is behind the companys £0.25m investment in the latest in harvester technology – the Holmer Terra-Dos giant 18t tanker machine from Germany, purchased in partnership with a neighbouring farming business.

"Were trying to reduce compaction and damage," explains Mr Wynn. As well as servicing the 148ha (365 acres) of beet for the Nevile Estate, the harvester and its dedicated team are to be put to work lifting crops under contract nearby, covering 668ha (1,650 acres) next season.

The farm is well endowed with concrete pads for beet clamps, courtesy of the grants available 15 years ago. "Thank goodness we put a lot in then," says Mr Wynn. "It would be hard to justify the investment now."

Clamp management has been "a steep learning curve," he admits. Having a harvester which is more gentle with the crop should reduce damage and so lessen spoilage in the clamp.

The 1,862ha (4,600 acres) under the direct management of Aubourn Farming from the Nevile Estate include limestone brash heathland as well as more variable soils closer to the home farm. Most of the beet is placed in a spring malting barley/seed wheat rotation up on the heath – site of the BEET UK demonstration on 21 October.

Running such a large acreage, its important to keep the lifting schedule simple. So the cropping is in large blocks, and having spring barley on the heath has helped the logistics enormously, argues Mr Wynn.

The brash soil is prone to drought and irrigation has not been available; beet variety Madison, with its reasonably thick top, has done consistently well under dry conditions, says Mr Wynn.

A proportion of the beet is also grown behind wheat and rape on the alluvial soils, gravel and peaty loams, some of which are more tricky to manage in a wet harvest. These crops would tend to be lifted first, leaving the heath area until last.

Rhizo caution

Rhizomania is a worry. Strict hygiene measures, including footbaths, will be imposed on the demonstration visitors and exhibitors. "Growers should ensure that their vehicles are clean," asks Mr Wynn.

Finally – but crucially: yield performance. Last season was an all-time record for the Nevile Farms; average adjusted yield over the whole acreage managed 62.6t/ha (25.3t/acre). Considering much had to be lifted early in the September/early October period, to make way for wheat, thats no mean feat, says Mr Wynn. It was certainly an improvement on the 1996 season when drought pushed the average down to 49.6t/ha (20.1t/acre).

Prospects for this year? The crop is looking better than average, according to Mr Wynn. But judge for yourself at BEET UK….