Beet lifting starts earlier than ever before

We started lifting sugar beet on this farm on 12 September, a record early start.

That was partly due to British Sugar opening its factories earlier than usual in response to grower’s demands.

Last year, the start of processing and lifting was delayed and the early, severe winter made harvesting impossible for weeks, leading to huge root losses by growers and British Sugar. Nobody wanted a repeat of that.

But it was also because we wanted to drill wheat after beet at the proper time rather than into mud and frost. The fact that the crop has grown well this year and is more mature than usual helped us make the decision. In the event, although as I write the last loads from that first lifting have not reached the factory, we appear to have harvested about 21 tonnes per acre (51t/ha) with an average sugar content of 17.3%.

I hear early liftings from Grade 1 land in the Fens and East Norfolk yielded better. But that just goes to show the difference in land quality. Our beet were drilled into moist (Grade 111) land in early March, germinated evenly and survived the spring drought that almost destroyed the cereals. When rain came in June they grew away and have never looked back.

The only problem was late-germinating weeds emerging after the rain which may have sapped yields a bit. But 21t/acre this early in the season is good for us. And the beet still in the ground will gain weight for some weeks. We must hope the wheat drilled in ideal conditions the day after those first beet were lifted compensates for lower beet yields.

Some of my friends ask me why we still bother with beet. Margins from rape are better, they tell me. It’s easier to grow. You don’t ruin your soil structure getting the crop off the land. And you can get wheat drilled behind it at the right time every year.

The answer is partially habit. We’ve done well from beet in past years, some of them before OSR was even thought of. I’ve always wondered if rape’s profitability will hold – although I needn’t have worried this year. And I’m obsessed by our local pigeons that have, in the past when we’ve grown rape, caused unacceptable damage. Perhaps the answer is to employ a permanent pigeon chaser. But I certainly couldn’t commit to what is virtually a full-time job.

So, for better or worse, we continue with beet for the time being. We’ve signed up again to grow next year when the price paid by British Sugar will, following grower unrest last season, be a bit better. But we’ll reserve judgement for now on what we grow in 2013.

Meanwhile, everything in the garden is not as it should be. As I write, British Sugar workers are voting on whether to accept a 3.5% pay rise or strike until they get 5%. I won’t get into the rights and wrongs except to note that the votes are to be counted when the ballot closes on 12 October and a strike of any length at that crucial point in the campaign could be extremely serious. We must hope the differences can be resolved.

Further ahead, there are rumblings that EU sugar quotas may be abolished, leaving growers free to grow what they like. That, I fear, would lead to lower prices leaving those on lower quality land struggling for margin yet again. Perhaps I should have another think about those pigeons.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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