7 November 1998

It was just what sugar beet growers had wanted – working machinery, a complete parade of new tackle, and the latest technical advice.

The BEET UK harvesting demonstration earned a universal thumbs up from the 6,500 visitors to Wellingore, near Lincoln for its no-frills, down-to-earth approach. British beet production is up there with the best in Europe – this event gave pointers as to how growers might harness the latest technology to do better still.

The event rightly put the working harvesters centre stage (see our review on page 45), but there was plenty of useful information to be gleaned from the static exhibition too. Gilly Johnson reports.

NEW SEED VARIETIES SHAPE UP

A MAJOR switch to new beet varieties from a wide range of breeding houses is a healthy sign, says John Prince, seed manager with British Sugar.

"These days new varieties are being picked up far more quickly than they used to be," he says. "Thats encouraging. The domination of any one variety is not necessarily a good thing. The broader the genetic base, the better."

For the first time, details of seed market shares for the crop now being harvested, and for that to be drilled next spring, have been publicly released (see pies right). The breakdown shows new varieties such as Chorus (bred in the US by Betaseed, marketed by Nickerson UK) coming in strongly.

Saxons decline is clear, says Mr Prince. "Five years ago it was very popular with 30% of the market. Market leader for next spring is Madison (Danisco Seed) followed by Roberta (English Sugar Beet Seed) and Jackpot (Delitzsch).

More growers are choosing Advantage primed seed to speed up emergence. This harvest 8% of the national crop was sown to Advantage-treated varieties; the market share for next spring is just under 10%, according to Veronique Heyes of seed pelleting company Germains.

Wet weather forced late sowing this year, particularly in the north. Using Advantage seed in these conditions is well worthwhile, says Ms Heyes. The main benefit in this case is not so much speed of emergence, as with improvements to crop uniformity and vigour, making herbicide management easier.

Establishment on soils prone to capping is greatly improved. Where Gaucho (imidacloprid) is used, Advantage will offset any delays to emergence, says Ms Heyes.

With later drillings in warmer soil, Advantage seed may come through perhaps two days before conventional seed. For earlier drillings in cold conditions, the difference is greater; primed seed can emerge a week ahead of conventional seed.

Company trials show average performance to be increased by 2.7% from Advantage seed. This would repay cost of treatment at £12 a unit.

Pricing policy

REFORM of Europes sugar regime in 2-3 years time will inevitably lead to lower prices, warns Matt Twidale, sugar beet negotiator with the NFU.

"To protect ourselves against falling prices, we must ensure growers are paid the maximum for their beet."

The NFU and British Sugar are currently renegotiating the terms of the growers contract – the inter-professional agreement, the IPA. Progress is slow, but Mr Twidale is hoping for a settlement to be agreed within 12 months.

The thorny topic of payment for sugar in beet crowns is a major sticking point. Mr Twidale is digging his heels in, arguing that because new techniques now enable BS to extract more sugar from top tares, growers should also see some benefit.

He also wants to win some financial recognition for the producers contribution towards better purity and improvements in quality sugar extraction. "Other producers elsewhere in Europe are rewarded for purity. In the interests of helping UK growers to tackle the leaner times ahead, we want BS to make similar payments ."

It was suggested by BS that the company might take control of beet haulage to the factories. "This is not acceptable to the NFU," insists Mr Twidale. There have been no cxomplaints about growers own haulage so far – why should we change the system?"

Once the rot sets in…

BEWARE the rot. Growers were given a close-up of fusarium-infected beet by Dr Mike Asher (photo right), of IACR Brooms Barn, at BEET UKs own plant clinic.

The noxious smell was enough to alert passers-by at the event. Rotting samples have already come into IACR Brooms Barn; Dr Asher warns that anyone spotting suspect beet must not allow any into the clamp. "This fungus moves fast. If you have even one or two rotted roots in the clamp, and it warms up, infection can spread.

"You may notice it before you start lifting, because it starts from the top downwards," he says. "If you kick a root and your boot goes into it, then the rot has started.

"Theres a lot of inoculum about, as a legacy of the past few dry seasons. Its the same fusarium as that which develops in cereals, but it only attacks beet when it is weakened, for example, after wilting."

His advice? "Lift and deliver immediately, if you know you may have a problem." Serious infection may need hand picking out before delivery; if there is evidence of fusarium root rot at the factory, loads may be rejected.

Violet root rot is also on the increase, probably because of the inclusion of other root crops in many beet rotations, says Dr Asher.

Because this disease starts at the root tip, it cant be spotted until lifting starts. It develops slowly so does not pose such a threat to short-term storage, as long as conditions are cool, he adds.

Delay equals loss

LIFTING and delivering beet in September is nearly always more profitable than harvesting later, according to by Martin Lainsbury of Morley Research Centre.

"With cereal prices now at rock bottom, growers may be tempted to maximise their sugar returns instead and leave the crop in the ground until November, when maximum sugar yield is reached. This is a mistake," he says.

"They should take into account what the delay in drilling the following cereal crop will cost in lost yields. Morley work shows that for every months delay, you lose 1t/ha of wheat. The loss is not as great for barley but the argument still holds."

Calculating the returns under different quota scenarios shows that only if the quota is at risk through underproduction might the late lifting option pay off. Otherwise, its worth an extra £300/ha (£121/acre) to lift in September rather than November, when following with winter wheat, and an extra £250/ha (£101/acre) if drilling barley after beet. Delaying lifting until October, and missing the early delivery payment, loses £200/ha (£81/acre) if wheat follows the beet. The loss is £100/ha (£40/acre) with barley for that months wait.

Savings on sprays

HERBICIDE savings of up to 50% have been made from adopting the FAR little-and-often spraying system, according to agronomist John Brook of Aubourn Farming (pictured above).

The FAR approach was developed abroad, and is now widely used elsewhere in Europe. It is intended to be a simpler answer to weed control than the more complex mixtures used in the UK. FAR stands for F(ph)enmedipham, Activator and Residual, and the mix includes one product in each category.

Spraying starts early, hitting weeds when small with very low doses. The beet may be sprayed four or five times in all, but because rates are low, and the straight products may be bought more cheaply than co-formulated proprietary mixtures, the spray bills are less, says Mr Brook.

The phenmedipham is the contact element in the mix. Typical choice of product for the Activator component might be ethofumesate (Nortron) or tri-allate (Avadex), with metamitron (Goltix), chloridazon (Pyramin) or lenacil (Venzar) as the Residual element. Oil can also be included, but not on the first spray, or if there is a risk of frost. Some caution has to be exercised on the number of repeat treatments allowed with certain products.

"The mix is tailored to meet the individual weed problem on a particular field," says Mr Brook. "Theres room to manoeuvre." Dose rates are typically below one-quarter recommended rates.

"With conventional herbicide programmes, beet growers might be spending perhaps £15/acre each time the sprayer goes through. With FAR it can be £4-5/acre."

"We dont use FAR in every situation – it depends whether the farming business is capable of taking the sprayer through the beet acreage at short intervals. And it does mean keeping a close eye on the weeds and spraying them when they are small."

Whats new

HOW does your beet profitability measure up? Richard Osborne of British Sugar puts a new computer model through its paces. The system can answer "What if?" questions – for example, working out how a switch of variety, seed rate, or sowing date might affect crop returns. In a pilot run, British Sugar is making the model available to a small group of growers. Judging by the favourable reaction at BEET UK, it should prove a winner….

THE best way of keeping tabs on whats happening in your beet clamp? Barry Houghton of British Sugar with a new temperature probe. On offer for £275 for one monitor plus four probes.

ITS a wrap. New lightweight but strong polyfelt sheeting to keep beet clamps snug this autumn. At £165 for a 5m by 25m sheet, price is the same as for the standard polypropylene sheets.