It’s a tale of another unique season for James Fretwell, one of two winners of the Bayer Beet150 competition, but while the early season yields are good, there is much to consider ahead of next year.
“The biggest cause for concern at the start of the season was what damage would the crop sustain without neonicotinoid seed treatments. Everything we did at this time was focused on giving the crop the best possible start to minimise the risk virus yellows could have on the crop,” says Mr Fretwell.
In many ways he began the season much as any other. Fields were ploughed when conditions allowed in the winter before a crop of spring barley was sown as a wind break to protect soils on the lightest land, roughly 20% of the crop area. After this it was a case of waiting for soil temperatures to warm and signal a start to drilling.
“The open winter may have helped with preparations. The barley was sown roughly two weeks earlier than normal while a seedbed for the sugar beet was created with a single pass of the power harrow. Drilling began on 21st March and was completed three days later. It was the perfect start to the season,” he explains.
From here, the season progressed much as normal helped by the favourable, albeit dry, weather ensuring good establishment rates.
“The entire 28ha crop was drilled at 1.17 units per ha before nitrogen was applied in two applications comprising 50 kg N/ha on 28th March and 68kg N/ha on 20th April. Symphylids and springtails can be an issue, but damage was minimal. There were points when the dry weather caused concerns, but despite this the crop got away well,” says Mr Fretwell.
While there was no virus of note to report, leaf miners were an issue and the crop received two insecticides – on the 20th May and 2nd June respectively – to give some early season protection.
“It is only the first season after neonics so perhaps the reservoir of virus is not quite what it could be, but with little means of protection our only defence is to do everything possible to speed the crop as quickly as possible to the 12-leaf stage when adult plant resistance starts to build,” explains Mr Fretwell.
With the crop establishing well and no serious pest pressures the next consideration was weed control. Fortunately, Mr Fretwell was assisted by some cool mornings which made herbicide applications less risky than might have been had drilling been delayed as happened in 2018.
“Our weed control is based around five applications of ethofumesate, metamitron, phenmedipham and lenacil following an approach adapted from the FAR system. It works for us and volunteer potatoes were our only challenging weed in 2019.”
More favourable weather followed, and the crop had met across the rows by roughly 7th June though Mr Fretwell is the first to admit this may have been helped from being on a slightly narrower row spacing to most growers of 45cm to suit the potato enterprise.
“We received 70mm of rain in early June which undoubtedly helped the crop kick-on and at this stage we were happy. By late July the first signs of rust were present and so the first Escolta (cyproconazole + trifloxystrobin) was applied at full rate on 29th July. As per BBRO guidelines this was followed up with another application of Escolta, also at full rate, on 29th August.”
The first lift took place on 29th October with 12 ha yielding an average yield of 93.7t/ha adjusted.
“We were pleased with that given the light land as the crop could be visibly seen to be burning up in September. The sugars were a little low at 16.82%, but it was otherwise a favourable start to the campaign.”
Mr Fretwell puts this impressive performance down to two points. First, having his own drill which means he can go when the conditions are good and not when the contractor is available.
“It may be an old drill, but its never been stored outside and is in excellent working condition. My experience supports the maxim that ‘you’re not a sugar beet grower, but a sugar beet driller’,” he says.
Second, is the timely application of inputs, be it early morning starts to apply herbicides when there is less chance of crop damage to applying the first fungicide at signs of disease onset and the second four weeks later even it means interrupting harvest.
“It may not be everyone’s favourite crop, but it rewards with a decent return on investment providing you can hit the higher yields. For that it deserves to receive the time needed to manage it properly,” concludes Mr Fretwell.
For the winner of the Beet150 highest-yielding field lifted before the end of November, Mark Means is ruing a season marred by a lack of summer sunshine. Though it is more a case of what might have been as the 2019 performance is far from disappointing. At an average adjusted yield of 93t/ha it is close to that of 2018.
With all his beet lifted before the end of November and all the following crop drilled, Mr Means has found time to reflect on the season.
“Yields ranged from 75t/ha on the heavier land to 85t/ha on the better ground while on another farm yields ranged from 85-110t/ha with an average across the complete crop area of 93t/ha. Performance tended to vary according to soil type, previous cropping and moisture availability,” explains Mr Means.
“What was noticeable however, was the impact on sugar levels from the lack of sunlight intensity after late September and the high amino nitrogen levels in the crop where there was a high soil nitrogen supply (SNS). Through the main growing period the crop had plenty of moisture which supported good root growth, but the lack of sunshine this autumn meant the sugar levels failed to keep up,” he says.
An issue he will have to grapple with next season, however, is remedying the soil damage incurred from lifting in less-than-ideal conditions. “Using muck has helped ensure soils are a little more resilient, but it has still sustained significant damage,” he says.
While he saw little impact of virus yellows in his own crop there was patches of infection locally and the threat of losses next season from a potentially bigger aphid population has led him to cut the crop area back for 2020 to little more than he has on the final year of his three-year contract.
“I spotted some virus yellows infection locally, but it is difficult to gauge the impact on yield. It may be that we get a cold winter which reduces the over-wintering aphid population, but with the two most effective insecticides likely to be unavailable in 2020 and beyond, it is not a risk I am willing to take,” he says.
On a more positive note Mark believes there are lessons to be learned in Chile that could be of use at home.
“I’m keen to see up close how they manage both sugar beet and potatoes in South America’s only country to enjoy a Mediterranean climate and also Bayer’s demonstration farm where I hope to gain an insight as to how they take a different approach to problems that are not unlike to those we face in western Europe,” he says.