Farming Insight: Keeping with the beet

GROWING sugar beet is always a bit of a gamble, says farmer Robert Baker.

There are the vagaries of the weather during the early growing season to contend with, the risk of damaging frosts, getting the best root size and the sugar levels, and ensuring the right conditions for lifting the crop.

From beginning to end, nothing is certain, and until the crop arrives at the sugar factory to be processed, and its sugar levels are tested, the farmer still doesn’t know how well he’s done, even if the yield is good.

This year, farmers and sugar factory managers have been scratching their heads more than ever over what to expect.

There was the good start to the growing season, followed by the woefully bad middle period. There was drought, there was rain, there was cold, there was the summer-that-never-was, then some reasonable weather.

“We have had a very strange growing year this year,” admits Dan Downs, Agricultural Business Manager at the Bury St Edmunds British Sugar factory.

“We have had the crops starting out in very good condition. They went into fantastic soil conditions then, as we know, it was rather cold and rather wet. If you are a small beet plant sitting in those conditions, you don’t grow very fast.

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“Saying that, the crops have really grown on quite well now. From the end of June until recently, the crop has grown terrifically and has really made quite good progress so there’s really considerably more optimism than there was back in spring.

“In terms of the overall final result, we don’t know really.”

Two or three weeks into the sugar beet campaign, it’s hard to predict with any certainty how things will develop, as much of the crop has still to be lifted, and that will remain the position right the way through until around February of next year, when the final plants should be lifted from the ground.

However, there is at least a sense of modest optimism - not a ground-breaking year, perhaps, and probably more of an average one. But it’s not a disaster - and a few months ago, it looked as though it could have been.

“With the growing season as it has been we have only just started delivery of the crop so we don’t know how it will be yet, says Dan.

Success is patchy - even within the area around Bury there are mixed reports - some crops to the south are looking very good indeed, some to the north of the town, less so.

“We are probably going to have a more variable crop in terms of locations. Sugar contents are actually quite good, running between 17.4 (per cent) and 17.7. That’s a measure of the percentage of the sugar content in the beet,” he says.

Samples are taken to the Wissington plant in Norfolk, British Sugar’s largest UK factory. There the sugar content is measured. Growers aim to get more than 16%, and at Bury, and around the country, 17.6% sugar content is about average.

“With the very cool conditions there was concern the sugar content would be quite poor,” explains Dan. “It’s looking more like an average.”

He is expecting there to be more variation on the root yield.

“There’s actually a way this year that the growers can get more money for the sugar crop because we have a new crowning standard. The grower can deliver the whole crown,” he says.

From last year, following an agreement reached with growers, farmers now deliver the whole root in order to maximise yields and ensure nothing goes to waste. Previously, there was concern about ‘over-topping’ or removing too much of the root along with the leaves.

“It was successfully negotiated into this standard. This means the grower can deliver their whole crop including the crown. It means we get more of the crop to process,” explains Dan.

“It’s good for us to have the crown material into the factory because it gives us more crop to process which puts more sugar in the silo.”

The campaign in the first few days got off to a slightly stuttering start at Bury, with ground conditions particularly hard. This made harvesting difficult, but a few days of rain loosened up the soil, and the growers were able to proceed at a faster rate.

“I would say we have been pretty tight to beet supplies but things are rapidly recovering now,” he says.

“I’m quite confident really of what the crop yields are going to be now. There will be some poorer ones but on balance particularly for East Anglia things are actually looking quite positive.”

Out in the fields, beet farmer Robert Baker, who is based at Drinkstone, near Bury St Edmunds, and is a member of the National Farmers’ Union national sugar board, says it is too early to say how the campaign will pan out, but reports about the state of the crop, even within a tight geographical area around the town, have been mixed.

“I’m hearing people that are very pleasantly happy and those who are just shrugging their shoulders,” he says.

“I don’t think we are in a boom or record bracket but we are not in a disaster bracket either.”

Robert grows about 450 acres of beet, both on his own farm and on a contract basis, and the crop makes up a significant part of his income. This year, the harvest is looking “average”, he thinks.

“I think we’ll be OK. I would say average,” he says. “The early lift the day before the factory opened was disappointing, if I’m honest, but the sugars were bang on average really and that saved the day. But they have done a lot more growing since then and they’ll continue to grow this month.

“The way this crop looks I can’t be too disappointed. It’s such early days in the campaign and the crop can’t be measured until it’s processed so a lot will depend on the rest of the campaign.”

The weather has been particularly unpredictable, making it especially tricky to gauge the crop.

“What do you call a normal year? Nothing seems normal,” he says.

In a “normal” year, Robert would expect to see an uplift in root weight and sugars before the weather cools down, plateauing around early to mid-November.

From then, a mild winter can take the crop in one direction, with sugars continuing to increase, a severe one in another.

“What you win on one end of the year you could lose the other. That’s gamble we take every year,” he says.

Eighty per cent of Robert’s crop is on heavy soil and because of this, in order to minimise soil damage, he likes to lift early, although that way you don’t get the weight.

“We have got the soil management issue to consider as well so we like to lift from the heavy soils early.

You don’t get the weight but we have had sugars increasing in February if we get a mild winter.”

Frost insurance this year may make a difference, but at a maximum of 50% of losses it’s a safety net, not a solution to severe weather, he says.

The campaign has started, but it could be a long winter.