Saturated soils threaten support

Sugar beet growers and contractors lifting the remaining 20-30% of the crop still in the ground must stop work when the soil becomes waterlogged if they value their support payments.


Harvesting conditions so far this season have not been too bad.


But if, in the next few weeks, the land becomes so wet that machines become stuck, work must be halted.


Otherwise cross-compliance obligations under the SFP scheme could be breached and a financial penalty incurred.


Under the new regulations, which came into force last January, there must be no vehicular movements on waterlogged soils.


This is to prevent compaction and long-term structural damage.


Because most beet is lifted late, particularly under British Sugar’s “just-in-time” policy, the crop is vulnerable to the restrictions in a wet autumn and early winter.


Other at-risk crops include late-harvested potatoes, forage and grain maize.


“Although soils are wet after the rains of mid-November, there is no sign of widespread waterlogging, so there is no immediate problem,” says Suffolk-based consultant Simon Draper of Independent Agronomy.


“So it is ‘steady as you go’, but beet growers need to be aware of their responsibilities under the new system and keep off the land when it becomes unworkable.


They need to be patient and wait for it to dry out before resuming harvesting.”


The new regulations define waterlogging as when the whole plough layer is saturated and machines become bogged down.


Once this happens, it is not just beet harvesting but also cultivations, drilling and any other operations that involve running on the land that should cease.


“Anyone who decides to carry on after being towed out of a wet patch could be in trouble, but most farmers would not want to work in these difficult conditions anyway,” says Mr Draper.


Most beet is grown on light and medium free-draining soils, but in recent years there has been a trend for more to be cropped on “better” land.


The new rules aim to ensure rainwater can get away to the drains.


It is accepted that some compaction is inevitable when beet is harvested late in the campaign, but carrying on when the land is totally unfit for travel risks serious compaction, soil structure damage, and collapsed underground drainage pipes.


“A lot of existing land drains were installed in the 1950s and 1960s,” says Mr Draper.


“With a life expectancy of about 40 years, many systems are at the end of their effective life, so need replacing.


But even one in good working order is of little use if water cannot penetrate to it.”


Another cross-compliance requirement is for Soil Protection Review forms to be completed by individual farmers.


They will be in the post in December and must be filled in by next September.


They should then be kept on farm available for inspection if required.


Although compulsory, the forms should help growers plan for their crops, he says.


“They need to tick boxes to show they have identified potential problems and that they understand how to tackle any that arise.”


fwarable@rbi.co.uk