Cereals 2018: Four beet competition finalists revealed

All four farmer finalists in the industry’s first yield competition fought off strong competition in what was a record beet-growing season and very high-yielding year.

The four finalists of the Beet Research Organisation’s (BBRO) Beet Yield Challenge are Guy Hitchcock of Hitchcock Farms in Suffolk, Will Jones from Salle Farms in Norfolk, GR Mawer and Son from Grimsby and Mark Means of JS Means in Norfolk.

The overall winner is set to be revealed at the Royal Norfolk Show at the end of the month.

See also: How to manage disease in sugar beet crops

Of the 28 fields entered from all four factory areas, the average yield in 2017 was 97.4t/ha.

This represented 73.5% of estimated potential yield – something the BBRO described as phenomenal and due largely to favourable early summer weather, which drove rapid crop canopy development.

Grown on a range of soil types with different cultivation practices, drilling and lifting dates, the crops entered in the challenge provide a unique barometer of UK sugar beet production and have helped to highlight some key focus areas, said Simon Bowen of BBRO.

“It came as no surprise to us that attention to detail at each key stage of production is what separated the good crops from the very good crops.

“This applies right from primary soil cultivation through to delivery at the factory,” Dr Bowen said.

Dry start

Given the very dry start to the 2017 growing season, soil management and seed-bed production were challenging and resulted in delayed emergence and some patchy establishment – which is where between 12-17% of potential yield was lost.

“It reinforced the importance of seed-bed quality and achieving the recommended 100,000 established plants/ha. All of the highest-yielding crops, including the four finalists, had plant populations in excess of 100,000/ha.”

But the stand-out feature and base for high yields in 2017 was the very rapid canopy development in May and June, revealed Dr Bowen, with those crops that reached higher crop cover scores by 21 June having the greatest yields.

“We had higher-than-average rainfall in early summer, which helped, as soil moisture is key at this stage.

“Attending to crop needs in this rapid-growth phase is also important, so adequate nutrition proved essential. Checks to growth from herbicides and bird and pest damage were kept to a minimum in the best crops,” Dr Bowen said.

BBRO Key focus areas

  • Seed-bed quality – establish a uniform 100,000 plants/ha
  • Seed rates –  higher seed rates help compensate for difficult early conditions, but are not a substitution for good seed-beds
  • pH levels – sugar beet is sensitive to pH, with an indication of higher yields from higher pH levels
  • Early canopy growth – very rapid canopy development in May/June in a high-yielding year
  • Weed control – early identification of weeds allows tailoring of herbicide programmes
  • Foliar disease – yield-limiting factor, third spray paid in later-harvested crops
  • Harvest date – select the right crops for later harvesting

Manure benefits

An effect of organic manures on this key early growth stage was noted, with the average yield of crops receiving manures being 106t/ha, compared with an average of 93t/ha where no manure was applied.

Protection from foliar disease also played a role in the results, with vigilance for the first signs of disease helping with optimum spray timing and product choice. While most crops received two fungicides, a third spray was cost-effective for later-harvested crops.

“Where the number of sprays was tailored to expected harvest date, there was an impact on yield,” Dr Bowen said.

Later harvest dates gave higher yields, but highlighted a tendency for crops to achieve a lower percentage of their potential, he noted. 

“The longer the crop is left in the ground, the wider the range of variables it is subjected to. Again, it’s down to detail – selecting the right fields, varieties and agronomy programmes can all make a difference with later-harvested yields.”

Results from the Beet Yield Challenge

Adjusted yield range 

(t/ha)

Percentage of crops

70-80

7

80-90

25

90-100

29

>100

39

Percentage of potential yield achieved

Percentage of crops

<60

7

60-70

32

70-80

39

>80

21