A late winter and the hottest, driest summer for more than 40 years are hardly the conditions to inspire growers seeking to grow a winning crop of sugar beet and yet, despite the efforts of Mother Nature, many growers prevailed.
Two growers who succeeded more than most were Norfolk farmer Mark Means and North Lincolnshire producer, James Fretwell. The two were the winners of #Beet150, a Bayer sugar beet competition that sought to highlight the management decisions that support a successful crop by offering a prize of a trip to Chile. The competition attracted 24 entrants spanning all factory areas.
Mr Means won the competition for the highest yielding field lifted before 30th November 2018 with a yield of 109.77 t/ha while Mr Fretwell won the prize for the highest overall contract yield of 103.32 t/ha.
Both Mr Means and Mr Fretwell noted the importance of good soil management as the basis for sound performance. Despite being about 70 miles apart (as the crow flies), both growers farm warp soils – where turbid river water was allowed to flood agricultural land so its suspended silts could settle before being drained away through a practice known as ‘warping’ – a fertile but free-draining silt that is easily worked, but prone to capping.
“Good land management in the autumn is vital to maintaining soil profiles; when I find root hairs in water running from land drains, I know we have a well-structured soil. We prefer to cultivate ahead of the winter, but care must be taken to avoid over working soils, especially if wet. If done properly our land barely needs any further work ahead of the drill,” says Mr Means.
For Mr Fretwell, the 2018 season started much like any other. “It comes down to knowing your land and how to manage it. While we rent land for potato production, we only grow beet on our own land, and this provides the opportunity to ensure any compaction is remedied in the autumn and farm-yard-manure spread before autumn ploughing.”
In support of the maxim that farmers are not sugar beet growers, but sugar beet drillers, both Mr Means and Mr Fretwell operate their own seed drills.
“Despite our reasonably small area, we own our own drill as I refuse to sow sugar beet when soils are cold. Owning our own drill means we can drill when conditions favour, rather than when we must according to contractor availability. Despite this luxury drilling in 2018 occurred about a month later than he would have liked due to the “Beast from the East”, says Mr Fretwell.
For Mr Means owning your own drill ensures operations are carried out in a timely manner, but also that his staff, who are arguably more committed to the success of the crop than a contractor might be, are involved.
“The skills of the machinery operators are often overlooked. Good operators are more than just drivers. Our drill operator showed great awareness in adjusting the machine as conditions changed during the day. We were drilling roughly 1 cm deeper at the end of the day than at the start to ensure the seed was sown into moisture. Forward speed is important too; I’ve learned to drill no faster than about 7 kph,” says Mr Means.
Both growers make use of animal manures to meet at least part of the crop’s nutrient needs.
By virtue of local availability, Mr Means uses poultry manure applied in the autumn ahead of ploughing. This is then supplemented shortly after drilling with 84kg N/ha applied as urea ammonium nitrate (UAN) to bring the total nitrogen applied to about 107 kg/ha.
To provide potash and magnesium needs, Kon-Kali is applied at 200kg/ha to deliver 80kg K2O; 12kg MgO; 8kg Na2O; and 25kg SO3.
A high soil pH of 8.2-8.5 means he routinely applies boron and Mn to sugar beet and boron to wheat as a liquid fertiliser.
For Mr Fretwell, farm-yard-manure from local pig and cattle farms is applied to stubble in the preceding autumn along with Sylvinite at 600 kg/ha delivering 96 kg of potash as K20 and 192 kg Na20 sodium. After drilling 40kg N/ha is applied as ammonium nitrate and a further 77 kg N/ha applied once the crop reaches the two-leaf stage, typically two weeks later. Manganese and magnesium are applied with herbicides and fungicides.
Adjusting the seed rate to ensure the target leaf area index was met ahead of the longest day is perhaps the single biggest decision Mr Fretwell took in 2018. With drilling performed over three days up to 21st April, some four weeks later than typical, Mr Fretwell realised that plants were likely to be smaller than normal heading into the summer. To reflect this, he upped the seed rate to 1.23 units/ha. The favourable conditions that followed meant he got better establishment than expected and by early August crop inspections revealed a plant population of 117,000 plants/ha.
“It was the right decision at the time [to up the seed rate] though hindsight suggests we may have been overly cautious,” he says.
Mr Means took a considered approach to seed rates too for a similar reason. “We sowed on 18th April, but I was encouraged by the good conditions and the crop emerged in six days. By mid-August we had a plant population of 102,200/ha which from a drilling rate of 1.15 units/ha means a respectable establishment rate of 90%,” he says.
For both Mr Means and Mr Fretwell, herbicide application is about avoiding crop check as much as it is about controlling weeds. Achieving this when days are warm, and the sun is shining brightly can be a challenge while the early morning starts can be anti-social.
Mr Means prefers a programme based around Betanal maxxPro (desmedipham + ethofumesate + lenacil + phenmedipham) and tends to go with three to four applications in combination with a residual depending on the weed pressure.
“The day length and high sunlight levels made safety a concern. I took to including a bio-stimulant in the later applications just to try and help the plant recover more quickly,” he says.
In addition to a slightly narrower row spacing of 45cm to fit the potato enterprise which Mr Fretwell believes helps contribute to better weed control through more competition, he prefers to follow the so-called ‘FAR’ approach based around low-rates of phenmedipham, ethofumesate, metamitron and lenacil. Applications made in the early morning when temperatures are typically lower and the risk of scorch is reduced.
“Our weed spectrum can be challenging with black bindweed, knotgrass and speedwell all problematic, hence why I like the little and often approach with the advantage I can use Betanal maxxPro if spray intervals stretch or weeds start to get away.”
Being that little further north undoubtedly helped Mr Fretwell’s crop as temperatures were regularly 1-2oC cooler than those faced by growers in East Anglia while the unclouded skies ensured his crops received just as much sunshine.
“The cooler temperatures, especially during the night, may have helped, but it was the crop’s resilient nature that stood it in good stead. In comparison, yields of our unirrigated potatoes are down 20% compared with the irrigated crops so it does make me wonder what might have been had we had some rain at times during the summer.”
For Mr Means the capacity to irrigate was unquestionably central to his crop’s performance and he made four pulls in the peak of summer to help the crop on.
“From field capacity on 15 April to a 140mm deficit by mid-June the early-lifted crop was looking wilted and stressed. We had some spare water, so I decided to make four irrigator passes around 18th June with each pass applying roughly 25mm of water. It proved to be highly worthwhile,” he says.
After the introduction of varieties with higher yield potential and the near universal use of insecticidal seed treatments, the adoption of fungicides with good activity against powdery mildew and rust has done more to increase yields than any other management intervention. The advice on fungicide use is now well established and most growers have followed it to their advantage.
While the dry conditions may have kept disease pressure low, Mr Means kept to the advice applying the first fungicide in late July at the full label rate.
“We had only a small amount of foliar disease in the crop by late-July which was encouraging, but my desire to stop it taking hold should conditions change and the fact that fungicides give such good return in investment meant an application of Escolta (cyproconazole + trifloxystrobin) on 30th July was an easy decision,” says Mr Means.
This was followed up three weeks later with an application of epoxiconazole while that scheduled to be lifted after the end of October (roughly two-thirds of the crop area) received a second application of Escolta.
Disease came in a little earlier in North Lincolnshire with Mr Fretwell making the first application of Escolta in early August and a second, also at full rate, four weeks later, on 30th August.
“The fungicides worked well and given that rust was beginning to get into the crop in mid-to-late October we can see that were it not for the protection they afforded disease would most likely have come in much earlier,” says Mr Fretwell.