Variety ‘not to blame’ for sugar beet problems

A popular sugar beet variety has been given the all-clear after crop establishment problems were reported in at least five other varieties as well.

Early-drilled crops of low-bolting Cayman from SES Vanderhave came under scrutiny after growers reported low plant populations and poor germination.

Some farmers believed the variety was to blame. But problems have now surfaced in other sugar beet varieties too – including those from different seed breeding companies.

Issues in affected crops include poor emergence, low germination and lack of vigour.

“This is not a Cayman-related issue,” said Mark Stevens, lead scientist at the British Beet Research Organisation. “We have seen it in other varieties and in varieties from other seed houses, too.”

Dr Stevens said it was little surprise Cayman was one of the first crops found with problems because it was a popular early-drilled variety grown by many farmers.

Farmers Weekly is seeking official confirmation of the affected varieties. However, they are believed to be other top varieties in addition to Cayman.

Growers have reported sugar beet populations as low as 40,000-60,000 plants/ha – half the target population of 100,000 plants/ha.

On closer inspection, stems and cotyledons appear distorted and twisted. In some cases there is little root system, or a proliferation of fibrous roots, but no main tap root.

But no single factor was to blame for poor emergence, suggested Dr Stevens. The situation was “complex” and appeared to involve many variable and interacting factors.

Possible contributing factors include seed treatment, priming and pelleting, as well as the weather and other environmental factors such as drilling depth and date.

With a mean temperature of just 2.2C, this March was the UK’s joint second coldest since records began more than 100 years ago.

It was also drier than usual, with 62.1mm or rain, 65% of the monthly average.

“Everything needs looking at,” said Dr Stevens. “The problem we have is trying to recreate weather patterns in the laboratory. It would be difficult, if not impossible.”

SES Vanderhave general manager Ian Munnery said: “Other varieties are affected, so clearly there are other issues at play here.”

Mr Munnery added: “We are collecting all the evidence we can – we are monitoring all our primed and non-primed seed in trials.”

Priming and pelleting seed is carried out in the UK by Germains, a King’s Lynn firm owned by ABF, the parent company of British Sugar.

Nobody at Germains was available for comment. British Sugar was managing all media enquiries in relation to sugar beet seed, Farmers Weekly was told.

British Sugar agriculture director Colm McKay said growers with concerns should contact their area manager.

“It is unclear what is causing these effects,” he said. “Environmental factors will have contributed to slowed germination and emergence in sugar beet crops as they have in many other crops.

“However, we are encouraging growers to document other factors such as herbicide applications, cultivation practices and seed details for the fields in question, to enable an objective assessment.”

The NFU is advising growers with affected crops to keep records and take photographs, both at field level and of individual plants to allow assessment of below-ground effects.

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