22 May 1998

Traditional drilling pays off

Beet crops across northern

Europe have struggled to

establish this season. Here

Andrew Blake finds out how

one Danish grower is coping

with a tricky start to the season

MORE sugar beet than ever needed re-drilling in southern Denmark this spring due to wet weather immediately after sowing.

Around Maribo in Lolland up to 10% of crops needed resowing. But at the 289ha (714-acre) Bukkehavegard estate Niels Ploug had little trouble establishing 70ha (172 acres) of the crop.

Good soil structure after 15 years of straw incorporation and good land drainage helped, Mr Ploug admits. But the key to his success was ignoring official advice to place nitrogen at drilling.

Sugar factories urged growers to place in support of government advice to cut N rates. "The factory tells us we should be doing it and a lot of people tried it this year. But the machines are not quick enough for me," says Mr Ploug.

Using his traditional approach he applied all the crops N before drilling. Sowing was then completed in just three days. "We started very early this year, on Mar 25."

Placement is advised by the factories as one means of meeting the governments aim of reducing nitrogen inputs in agriculture, says Danisco Seeds Soren Nielsen. This year it requires growers to make 10% cuts in overall N use.

The on-going programme, which was introduced two years ago, has fines for over-use. Some test cases were brought to the courts last year, with talk of 50p/kg penalties.

In 1996 15% of the local factorys area was sown with placed fertiliser and the figure increased last year. Nitrate leaching is not a great concern for Mr Ploug. "I am sure the nitrogen is still there. We used 125kg/ha because we incorporate the straw. The factory says we could go to 100 if we place it. But at the moment I think the planters are too slow. Last year we had an average sugar content of 18.4% from 120kg and the amino N levels were very low." Sugar yield at 10t/ha (4t/acre) was also good, he notes. "That tells me the beet gets hold of all the nitrogen and nothing is wasted."

Niels Plougs traditional approach to drilling paid dividends this season.

DANISH BEET DRILL

&#8226 Government N restrictions.

&#8226 Placement option advised.

&#8226 Slower seeder operation.

&#8226 Wet weather penalties?

Wind profits

Despite a phenomenally high land price wind-farming still pays better than agriculture, says Mr Ploug. His £0.5m investment in a wind-powered generator produced £80,000 worth of electricity last year, even though the average wind speed was only 90% of normal. The machinery should be good for 25 years, he estimates. And although the government pays nearly half the electricity price, the exercise should remain profitable if that subsidy goes, he believes. Set-up cost included £50,000 for just 16 sq m of land which had the necessary planning permission.