SUGAR BEET CHALLENGE
Sugar beet is a key crop for
many arable farmers and
none more so than the three
finalists in the Du Pont/
farmers weekly Sugar Beet
Grower Challenge 2000.
Here Charles Abel profiles
the competition winner
DROUGHT is the biggest issue confronting Mark Irelands 166ha (410 acres) of sugar beet mostly grown on brashy heath soils near Sleaford, Lincs.
With C-beet values on the floor the pressure is on to minimise over-production without jeopardising A and B quota production.
It is a fine line to tread with contracts totalling 7398t. But an area cut, new varieties, earlier drilling at lower seed rates and a husbandry policy geared to maximising late crop growth is paying dividends.
Mr Ireland farms 1004ha (2480 acres) with his father and brother from Grange Farm, North Rauceby, near Sleaford. The beet area includes 63ha (156 acres) grown on contract for his neighbouring uncle.
"Risk management is the key for us on this droughty land. If we dont get the rain yield can slip to 11-12t/acre." In the past that has meant a hefty area of extra beet as insurance, leading to huge C-beet production if rainfall was adequate. This year saw the total area cut 10.5% from 114ha (282 acres).
To ensure that still meets A and B quota drilling has moved earlier, now starting around March 10, to achieve maximum leaf cover as early as possible. A 45cm (18in) row width also helps.
Variety choice favours fast growing types like Ariana. Early sight of new lines from breeder Delitzsch helps steer choice.
Target population is 75,000 plants/ha. But 95% establishment is unlikely given problems with stones and mice, Mr Ireland comments. Slower drilling, stone pushers and deeper drilling at 4.5cm (1.75in) are helping.
A seed rate reduction from 1.3 units/ha to 1.1 has cut cost and produces a more regular beet size with no impact on yield. Further cuts may be tried, an area accidentally drilled at 0.9 units/ha yielding well last year. "But we have not had a dry spring yet," Mr Ireland comments.
At the other end of the season harvest is delayed to maximise yield. "The land does suit November/December lifting," notes Mr Ireland.
That means crops need keeping disease-free. A triazole spray of Alto240 (cyproconazole) or Punch C (flusilazole + mbc) is preferred to sulphur, giving faster work rates at 200 litres/ha, good control of rusts and suppression of mildew.
Lifting is carried out with a Riecam 300 tanker which covers 506ha (1250 acres) a season. "We could do more, but it must be at the right price. It costs us £42.50/t including carting, so lifting for less than £50/acre makes no sense. I would rather put the machine in the shed and expect a longer working life from it," says Mr Ireland.
"It also means we have the capacity to lift when we want to. We can do 35 acres a day, but to make a good job of it we prefer to run at 25."
Delivering clean beet is a priority. Beet is left to stand for 4-5 days to shed soil and beet from stony ground goes over a picking table. "Total tare averaged 9.6% last year against a 10% target, so we were pleased."
Technical excellence continues throughout the season, inputs being adjusted to the specific needs of each field, with autumn soil testing dictating P and K rates and regular field walking influencing spray rates.
Mr Ireland is BASIS qualified and does all his own field-walking. "It means I am in each field every 2-3 days in April, so we are more in touch with what is going on and can really fine-tune inputs."
Nitrogen rates have been cut in recent years to 120kg/ha this year, split between liquid urea mixed with chloridazon pre-em herbicide and granular N once plants have 2-4 true leaves. This year some Hydro Probeta compound granules are being tried.
Weed beet is pursued with inter-row hoeing and hand pulling, the goal being to eliminate the yield-sapping weed. But weed wiping is unpopular, sometimes leading to rotting beet in the clamp, Mr Ireland notes.
British Sugars benchmarking scheme is helping the drive to improved productivity and reduced costs, Mr Ireland comments.
Last years costs were well down on 1998, Gaucho-treated seed tumbling from £160/ha to £132, fertiliser from £89 to 77, herbicide £91 to £75 and fungicide £10 to £5.70/ha. *
June 9 and Mark Irelands beet is well on the way to a respectable yield. A fast start and careful crop management is helping stabilise yield on droughty heath land near Sleaford, Lincs.
• 166ha, 7398t A/B.
• 60.74t/ha adjusted.
• 17.8% sugar, 4% dirt, 6.2% top.
• Sandy loam soils.
• Drought prone.
• Less C-beet goal.
• Own field-walking.
DuPonts Craig Chisholm (left) presents the award.
In future Mr Ireland hopes to extend the rotation to one in five years, thanks to land coming out of an NSA premium grass scheme. That will help combat weed beet.
Extra quota is also desired. "The new agreement with British Sugar helps, paying us back with more quota for low tares. But the scale cut on sugars is a bit disappointing," he says.
Rationalising equipment use is a further goal, a plough, press, drill approach having been experimented with, but making accurate topping difficult in the past. The existing drill can not be adapted for tramlining, so that will have to wait until a new machine is bought.
Assurance holds no fears, Mr Ireland already having been included in the BS Food Safety Audit twice. "We have nothing to hide."
GM varieties would help technically and could cut costs, he adds. But Mr Ireland accepts that he will have to wait until consumers are ready before gaining access to the new technology.