Norfolk pig farmer Michael Jones has turned to growing sugar beet and expects it to be his most profitable crop on his arable and livestock holding.
Outdoor pigs rootling across his light sandy loam soils are the perfect entry for his new sugar beet crop which thrives on high organic matter fertile soils.
The beet newcomer expects the crop to outshine winter wheat in profit terms while two years of grass supporting 350 sows in his rotation will help to cut his overall fertiliser bill.
“It’s a good break crop and hopefully it will have the highest gross margin on the farm,” he tells Farmers Weekly.
The beet area is on the rise on his council-owned tenant farm near Norfolk’s east coast, and next season will be his first crop on land following the pig herd.
“Hopefully the extra organic matter will prove beneficial for a crop which is not as weather dependent as cereals,” he adds.
In addition, there is zero machinery investment as a local contractor does all the work from ploughing to beet harvesting, leaving him to focus on producing 9,000 piglets a year.
Beet processor British Sugar has attracted 140 new growers to the crop this season while many existing growers have expanded their areas as the abolition of EU quotas and increased prices has seen the overall area up by a third this season.
Mr Jones was ahead of this surge in interest, growing his first sugar beet crop on the farm in 2016, increasing his area this season and planning a further rise in 2018.
His sugar-beet-growing story goes back to October 2015 when he clinched a 10-year tenancy at the 96ha Hall Farm at Mautby, three miles north east of Great Yarmouth.
Although he came from a north Norfolk family with sugar beet growing in his blood, his previous role was managing a 1,400-sow unit, and so this was to be his first hands-on experience with the crop.
His first 10ha sugar beet crop in 2016 yielded 67t/ha, and this season he is hoping to get close to the nationwide average of 76t/ha with a 12ha crop, while he is planning an area of 16ha in 2018 to follow his pig herd and gain from the extra fertility.
Sugar beet expert Nick Morris believes yields of 90t/ha are “very achievable” on the farm and could move towards the 110t/ha level which top beet growers can yield across their farms.
Mr Morris, agricultural business manager with British Sugar, says this area of Norfolk, close to the Cantley beet factory and boasting rich loamy soils while enjoying a mild winter near the coast, can produce some very high beet yields.
“There is no reason the farm can not exceed the current yield of 67t/ha with its wide rotation and by adding organic matter back to the soil,” he says.
Mr Morris adds that with an average nationwide yield of 76t/ha on a guaranteed price of £22/t, before any bonuses, could give the farm an output of £1,672/ha.
With variable costs of seed, sprays and fertiliser of about £600/ha this would give a gross margin of £1,000/ha and a net profit of £600/ha given total costs – including contractor charges – of £1,000/ha. (see table)
The farm had previously grown cereals and sugar beet, so when Mr Jones took over the holding he was keen to add organic matter to these arable soils where all the straw had been removed rather than returned.
Rotation with pigs
His plan is for a six-year rotation of two years of outdoor pigs on grassland, sugar beet, winter wheat, potatoes (rented to neighbour) and then winter barley.
His strategy is to drill grass seed into winter barley stubbles soon after harvest, with the ground being grazed by a neighbour’s sheep in the autumn and so ready set up to be home for 350 sows by February the following year.
The timing of sugar beet drilling is dictated by when the pigs are removed, and can be complicated by blocks of sows farrowing every three weeks and four-week old weaners transferred in big groups to a fattening operation in Suffolk.
When pigs are removed after two years of grazing in February next year, the land will be ploughed, cultivated if needed, and then drilled with sugar beet.
All the field work is being be done by a local contractor, which has the advantage for Mr Jones that all the latest and up-to-date machinery for sugar beet growing will be used.
But it is the pigs, run as a contract breeding unit, which have proved essential in term of regular cashflow to help out the arable side and make sugar beet outperform his winter wheat where he is looking for a yield of 9.5t/ha.
British Sugar has added 140 new growers and encouraged some of its existing 3,500-plus growers to expand, and so see has seen its overall beet area rise by a third this season.
This is the first season without EU quotas, so allowing the UK sugar beet area and the size of the harvested crop to be expanded.
Therefore, this season’s beet area has expanded to well over 100,000ha from the 86,000ha harvested in 2016, which produced about 8m tonnes of beet.
All this additional beet will be supplied to the group’s existing four plants – Wissington and Cantley in Norfolk, Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and Newark at Nottingham.
British Sugar announced a 8.4% rise in beet prices, before possible bonuses, for this season and this has helped the area rise to about 115,000ha.
The sugar crop from the 2016 beet crop totalled 900,000t, so with the increased area this season the crop may push towards the record crop of 1.45m tonnes from 2014’s area of 116,000ha.
Beet growers will get a 2.3% price rise to £22.50/t for the 2018 beet crop, up from £22/t in 2017 before market-linked bonuses.
Mr Jones has a one-year contract delivering 950t on beet to the Cantley factory.
Typical costing for growing sugar beet (£/ha)
|*Based on average yield of 76t/ha at price of £22/t without any bonuses|