Rounding off our 1997 series of profiles of innovative beet growers, Tia Rund visits Lincs-based Burtts of Dowsby.
Michael Burtt rubbed his eyes and looked through his growers return once more. Hed known that the beet crop hadnt been the best but, still, it was sobering to see his fears confirmed in black and white. Yields were well short of C quota. Not only were the returns going to suffer, but he was in real danger of losing tonnage if he couldnt steer things back on course.
This was three years ago, but light years away from todays beet performance. He made the decision there and then to turn the crop around and within a single season hed done just that.
But he didnt manage it alone. In a milestone meeting to pick over the bones of the 1994 results, the combined forces of British Sugars area manager David Smith, ADAS senior agronomist Andrew Wells, David Frobisher of Agrochem South and farm manager Peter Maplethorpe were drafted in.
By the time the meeting was over, the team of troubleshooters had established a beet-growing blueprint.
It sounds simple in theory, but some of the changes were quite radical, striking right to the core of the farms philosophy. Cultivations, for instance. First, a Claydon furrow cracker was added to the autumn ploughing operation.
Second, where as many as three passes with a power harrow and/or Dutch harrow used to be the spring routine, nowadays a Kongskilde Germinator reduces seedbed preparation to a single operation.
Combined with the use of flotation tyres, the net benefit has been a more level and less compacted surface at drilling time. Mr Burtt is quick to credit his farm manager, Peter Maplethorpe, for these initiatives.
Nitrogen is applied, text book fashion, at 40kg/ha at drilling and 80kg/ha on emergence.
Liquid fertiliser was trialled on one field last year with satisfactory results. There is some concern about scorching with the later application but hopefully Mr Burtt will be able to extend the use of liquid fertiliser making the spreader completely redundant.
Virus yellows contributed to the depressed yields in 1994. Gaucho-treated seed was trialled in 1995 and used wholesale since then.
Bolters are knocked out by hand, with a Carier Rollmaster brought in to use if the infestation is bad. Tractor hoeing is routine across the entire beet area, at least once and sometimes twice during the course of the herbicide programme. "You dont see the immediate benefits of control, but weed beet can be a real timebomb," says Mr Burtt.
But the biggest influence on the recovery of performance must be irrigation. A couple of boreholes at Manor Farm and a winter storage reservoir at Brant House, together with a ring mains on each farm, means the entire area can be accessed by the Wright Rain hosereels.
The investment in irrigation equipment had originally been made to support the Burtts onion enterprise. But the high stone content on the river gravel soils caused an increasing number of problems with the handling equipment. The decision to move out of onions happily coincided with the sugar beet reformation and meant that irrigation could be directed exclusively to beet, as the sole remaining root crop.
Dry summers had always exposed huge unirrigated yield variations between beet on light and medium lands, so Mr Burtt knew that plenty of scope existed for improvement. But in the past there had only ever been occasional irrigation to remedy the worst effects of drought usually, admits Mr Burtt, as a fire engine treatment.
Now the policy is to select beet on the lightest 80ha (200 acres) for intensive irrigation in any one year. If irrigation was extended to take in any more of the total 180ha (450 acres) it would be difficult to work around the area within the target 10 day cycle, he believes.
The approach seems to be paying off. Yields on the lightest soils were 33 to50% higher in 1995 and 1996 than in 1994.
But, nature being fickle, this year the irrigators have been idle. The trigger points come around June and September and, on each occasion, rain came just in time to save the need for watering.
Scheduling is based on British Sugars (BS) weekly bulletin service which, for an annual fee of £30, provides regional weather forecasts and a monitor of soil moisture deficits at three sites in the Newark factory area, which happens to include one of Mr Burtts fields.
He feels that, with this information, he can strike the right balance between theory and practicality. "This is quite scientific enough. There are so many factors beyond your control, such as wind. If you adopt a slide rule mentality, you could easily get left behind."
Mr Burtt has also found that irrigation knocks on to easier storage. "Bigger beet give better air flow through the clamp," he notes.
Since 1994 he has increased the total of clamps, all field-located, to eight, each not too square and not overlarge, with a concrete base and either big bale or timber sides. "Theres no one big mass of beet thats difficult to manage."
The contractor who does most of the harvesting uses high-tip dump trailers to load beet into the clamps. This saves additional handling with a fore-end loader, reducing damage and the risk of restricting ventilation by compacting the beet. His Vervaet tanker harvester also does a good job of presenting the beet in a relatively clean state, grants Mr Burtt.
BS clamp sheets are used and temperature in the clamp is monitored on an occasional basis. "The probe doesnt give a definitive measurement," comments Mr Burtt, "but it can alert us when theres a problem brewing".
Harvesting and storage are closely co-ordinated with deliveries, which is no easy task given that the two farms are 30 miles apart, but both managed by Mr Maplethorpe from Manor Farm.
Despite the apparent success of Mr Burtts team in boosting the profile of the beet crop, its work doesnt stop. "Our success lies in the cross-pollination of ideas. Theres no magic wand or miracle cure. Since that initial historic meeting weve all kept in touch, and David Smith from BS always reviews each season with us."