David Richardson is growing beet again, but…

We finished drilling sugar beet on 12 March, which was roughly the date by which the previous crop was due to have been delivered for processing if we hadn’t had those disastrous frosts last November and December.

It just goes to show how misguided it has been to plan campaigns that last into the next growing cycle, with all the implications of labour peaks and disease carry-over – never mind the challenge of trying to keep roots in a state fit to process through even mild winter months. That has to change and, if it doesn’t, we and many other longstanding growers might well be heading for the exit next year.

So, you may ask, why are you still planting beet this year if you’re so unhappy with the crop? One reason is that we signed a contract last autumn, before the frost problem; although I’m not sure what sanctions British Sugar could impose if we’d decided to tear it up.

More seriously, by the time the sugar beet were lifted and the processing situation resolved, it was clearly much too late to plant winter rape – the only alternative we’d seriously consider. Spring rape would not, I suspect, be an economic runner in comparison and we already grow a hundred acres of legumes so didn’t think it wise to have any further exposure in that direction.

In other words, we felt ourselves rather stuck with beet this year. And the winter frosts that caused so many harvesting problems a few months ago left our early ploughed land in first class order. You could make a seed bed with a stick. The clods literally fell apart. OK, the later-ploughed stuff that had not benefited from those low temperatures wasn’t quite as good, but even that came down fairly well and the entire beet acreage was pulled down and drilled in a matter of a few days.

There might also be a question mark over the earliness of beet drilling. It’s not normal on our sort of land to drill before about the third week in March. But the land was in ideal order and the weather fine, so we decided to go ahead. Another of the deciding factors was the dry spring last year that caused poor germination, especially with later drilled crops that went into dry seed beds, and we were determined to ensure this year that we drilled into what moisture remained in the land.

In the event, the day after we finished drilling the beet we had a lovely gentle, unexpected, rain for a couple of hours that reached the seeds and will have guaranteed they have sufficient moisture to grow. Yes, I know we might still have a cold spell in March and that emergence might be delayed, but, on balance, I’m convinced we were right to get the job done in good conditions.

Before we set about the beet we applied the first top dressings to all the wheat. We also rolled a few of the later drilled ones, which looked as if they needed it and they’ve certainly perked up since.

The only other spring drilling we still have to do are the harvest peas. I always think peas are more sensitive to cold than most crops so, as I write, we have held off in the hope the soil will get a bit warmer. But we must always be mindful of the possibility of another dry spring and summer. If we start to lose soil moisture we’ll be out there smartish.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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