Getting the most out of sugar beet contracts post-regime reform

Sugar beet prices are likely to fall to under £20/t by 2012, so growers must look at how they can get the most out of their contracts by maximising yields and production efficiency.

That is the warning from Aubourn’s Philip Wynn, who believes that EU Sugar Reform will cost British Sugar about £40m which, in turn, will put pressure on producers.

“Growers must look at how they can achieve their contract tonnage in the most efficient way and not assume they’ll be able to supply anything above or below it.”

Potentially there could be a market for some “C” beet going into energy (bioethanol) production.

But much will depend on government policy and many UK processors may still prefer more readily available crops, such as wheat, which are also easier to store, he says.

Maximising average yields is key to longer-term profitability, and growers should be aiming to achieve BS’s target of 70t/ha (28t/acre).

There may be some small savings to be made on inputs like seed, fertiliser and sprays, but big economies are unlikely, he believes.

“Site selection, timeliness and logistics offer the greatest scope for reducing production costs.”

David Knott, managing director of the South Lincolnshire-based Patrick Dean farming company agrees.

He is involved in a joint operation with the nearby Nevile Estate (managed by Mr Wynn), harvesting 800ha (2000 acres) of beet a year with one Holmer harvester.

“You’ve got to look at it from a business point of view and ask how you can get the most out of your contract.

We’ve got to be open minded about how we look at the new [beet regime] environment, as we certainly can’t change it.”

There are a variety of things that can be done, such as taking poor areas out of production (eg. headlands, field margins), looking carefully at rotation to avoid pest or weed problems and block cropping areas of beet, he says.

BS is also likely to become more flexible in the way contracts can be managed post-reform, which could give growers more scope to pool them and have greater flexibility over where they grow the crop, he predicts.

“Early drilling is key.

We normally start at the end of the first week in March on the lighter soil.

The heavier land will be drilled slightly later, although this will reach yield potential earlier and can be harvested first, leaving the lighter land to be harvested after Christmas.”

Once harvested, beet spends very little time in clamps to minimise sugar losses, he continues.

“The greatest losses are in the first five days, so reducing the average time beet are clamped to two or three days has made a huge difference.

We use one 12t tanker machine and one tractor/ trailer, which unloads beet no more than 500m away from the harvester.”

Mr Knott, who uses one agronomist and a dedicated sprayer operator, does not believe that growing a large area compromises spraying or harvesting timeliness.

“Providing we carefully plan the logistics of where we’re going to drill the crop and use varieties and soil type to help manage workloads, it’s not really an issue.”

Ensuring sufficient time between beet crops in the rotation is also important, to reduce problems like beet cyst nematode and weed beet, he adds.

“Typically our gap is around four or five years.”

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