Sugar beet harvest showing above average yields

This season’s sugar beet campaign is making good progress, with above-average yields, as Robert Harris reports

Excellent lifting conditions and decent yields have put sugar beet back in favour on most farms a year after the unseasonably early wintry spell wreaked havoc on the national crop.

Alastair Priestley, managing director of Cereals 2012 host farm Patrick Dean Limited, describes lifting conditions on the farm’s sandy loam soils as fantastic. “Apart from the headlands you could direct drill wheat straight behind the harvester.”

By the start of this week, the Lincolnshire business had lifted 65% of the 1,100ha that will go through the shared-ownership six-row Holmer harvester. Half of the tonnage had been delivered and a further 160ha worth of beet was on the pad.

“Up to the end of November last year we were employing just-in-time harvesting and had only lifted half of the beet before the cold temperatures arrived,” he says.

Yields are above average at 70t/ha adjusted, with sugars averaging 18.75%. Good growing conditions from the start underpinned that performance, says Mr Priestley.

The new topping regime in response to the new fixed crown tare of 6.77% this season has been little bother. “We have lifted the flails up slightly and taken pressure off the knives. We have not had any loads rejected, so there is probably room for further adjustment, though the unevenness of crown height makes it so very difficult to achieve perfection. We will look closely at this trait when choosing next year’s varieties.’

Despite the drought affecting his Fenland skirt soils at Flegcroft Farm, Whittlesey, in Cambridgeshire, Philip Bradshaw reckons yields are above his 70t/ha quota target and sugars are averaging about 18.5%.

He finished harvesting his 24ha last week. “I estimate we’ll end up with 75-80t/ha,” he says. “It’s been very dry but beet came out well on the lightish soils and we had a bit of rain to soften up later liftings.”

He expects about 500t will be clamped until just before Christmas. “We want to minimise the time between harvest and delivery, but even without last year’s big freeze we know beet has to be out by the end of November on these low-lying soils.”

About two-thirds of Bartlow Estate’s 263ha of beet was lifted by last weekend, reports manager John Goodchild. “The earlier liftings were down a bit at about 65t/ha, compared with our five-year average of 81t/ha.”

Lack of rain from drilling onwards is to blame, he believes. He hopes 45mm of rain a month ago will help boost root yields. “There may be some benefit, though growing days have largely gone.”

Sugars, however, are good – in the upper 18% range. More than half the expected output has now been delivered and just over 10% remains in clamp. “Like many other people we will be veering towards clamping after last year – at least we can manage it.”

NFU sugar board chairman William Martin finished lifting his beet – probably his best crop ever – at the end of last week. After three years of trying to leave the crop in the ground after Christmas, half the crop is in clamp. “Last year’s losses aside, we also found we were struggling to establish following wheat crops,” he says.

“Generally people have had a very good harvest apart from one or two pockets where the weather caused problems. The UK is probably close to a record as we stand, but not all beet is delivered yet.”

“Growers and contractors have also reacted very positively to the new topping arrangements and we believe they are benefitting in paid yield terms as a result of delivering more crown material,” adds Robin Limb, British Sugar’s central agricultural manager.

Growers have delivered on average two-thirds of their contract tonnage, ahead of last year, says Mr Limb. “Excellent harvesting conditions have resulted in very good yields being reported for most growers. We believe prospects for this year’s crop remain good, but the final outcome will depend on the weather conditions for the remainder of the campaign.”

Beet quality has been high, with dirt tares averaging just 3.5%. “Factories have been operating at a high throughput. Sugar production this campaign is currently ahead of where we would normally expect to be,” says Mr Limb.

Transport scheme

The new British Sugar transport scheme is going well, with about 10% of growers signed up, says Mr Martin.

The scheme, where growers are paid an ex-farm beet price and let British Sugar collect the beet, was rolled out across all four factories this season after the previous year’s pilot.

“It depends on location and relationship with their haulier, but the convenience factor has certainly tempted a lot of people,” he says. “Some were paying over and above their allowance, so they will also be better off.”

• See grower comments on our sugar beet forum

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