Sugar Beet has been grown continuously on this farm since my Mum & Dad grew it for the first time in 1959/1960. Sugar Beet is a unique crop in that it is the only one that is grown under contract to one processor/buyer. British Sugar is the uk’s only processor of Sugar Beet and has been a subsidary company of Associated British Foods since 1991. The sugar industry started in the uk in the early 1900’s. It originally consisted of many independent companies, these were nationalised in 1936 to form the British Sugar Corporation. In 1981 denationalisation took place, ABF bought British Sugar from Berisford in 1991. Since then many factories have been shut, now just 4 state of the art factories remain. We are fortunate to deliver our beet to the biggest of the factories at Wissington near Ely. Wissington Beet sugar factory is the biggest Beet sugar factory anywhere in the world and annually processes 3 million tonnes of sugar beet.
Sugar Beet is a valuable break crop within our rotation and provides useful environmental benefits such as nesting areas for Lapwings and Skylarks, both of which are threatened arable farmland birds.
Sugar Beet is generally considered to be a “Safe crop” to grow, with the backing of a contract for the harvested beet and the fact that our temperate climate is highly suitable for maximising yields in most years.
SUGAR BEET HUSBANDRY.
Place in the Rotation.
Sugar beet grows best on deep fertile soils, but is more tolerant of heavier less fertile soils than potatoes, for this reason it can provide a valuable break crop on land that might otherwise only be suitable for combinable crops such as wheat. Where beet is grown in the same rotation as Potatoes we generally follow a six year rotation:
Where beet is grown on heavier soils without potatoes in the rotation it follows a simpler rotation. Typically we would include beet once in 4 years in this situation.
The most fertile fields. Heavier Soils.
Year 1. Wheat Year 1. Wheat
Year 2. Wheat Year 2. Wheat
Year 3. Sugar Beet Year 3. Wheat
Year 4. Wheat Year 4. Sugar beet
Year 5. Wheat.
Year 6. Potatoes.
Autumn soil preparation
Seed bed preparation for sugar beet starts in the autumn immediately after harvest of the proceeding crop. If there are any signs of bad drainage in the field it is immediately cultivated deeply to remedy the situation and improve the drainage thus preventing any issues with flooding during the coming year. Ploughing ideally takes place during mid/late October before the land gets too wet. This prevents structural damage to the soil and allows the winter frosts to break down the soil to a friable well structured tilth ready for drilling the seeds in the Spring. The period between harvesting the previous crop and ploughing is a critical time for our preparations for the beet crop and we have to be quick. Firstly we have the soil tested for nutrients and acidity. Whilst sugar beet doesn’t usually require large dressings of fertiliser on our fertile fen soils,- we usually apply enough to ensure we replace that which the crop uses – it is very sensitive to soil acidity, which can adversely effect yield. For this reason we often use liming materials on land that is to be drilled beet. Our aim is to get soils to pH7 if possible. Our favourite most cost effective liming material is LimeX70 a by-product from Wissington Beet sugar factory. This is a bulky material, so we often ask our hauliers to “Backload our lime from the factory when delivering our beet, this attracts a more competitive (In farming terms this means cheaper..!!) haulage rate. This is then spread on the land by a specialist local contractor as soon as possible after delivery and before ploughing. Lastly during the autumn we take the opportunity to apply a single spray of Glyphosate 3 weeks before ploughing to clear any perennial weeds this way we get a completely clean weed free seed bed in the spring.
Spring seedbed preparation
Sugar beet seed is quite small so needs a fine shallow and firm seedbed in which to grow. On the farm we produce these fine high quality seedbeds by using shallow working harrows, which just cultivate deep enough to level the surface of the field and create the shallow fine seedbed required. Often harrows are mounted on the front of the tractors as well as the back to minimise the number of passes and avoid damaging wheeling compaction.