The withdrawal of neonicotinoid seed treatments and the extreme weather conditions last year created a challenge for sugar beet growers, but work at the BBRO helped to mitigate the impacts of adverse conditions. The research organisation is sponsoring the Virtual Innovation Hub and sees this as an opportunity to discuss how the innovations it has pioneered can help the wider industry.
Dr Simon Bowen is the Knowledge Exchange Lead at BBRO, which supports sugar beet growers through targeted research and sharing of best practice. He comments that the UK sugar market remains strong and it presents opportunities for more home-grown sugar production to meet demand. However, last year tested even the most seasoned growers.
Simon says: “2019 was the first year of growing crops without the seed treatments that help protect crops against virus-carrying aphids. BBRO responded to this challenge by establishing a comprehensive aphid monitoring system linked to very targeted use of foliar insecticide. The numbers of aphids detected in 2019 reached record levels, putting the national crop at great risk of a severe virus problem. However, careful monitoring and timely use of insecticides proved successful in avoiding a serious widespread virus epidemic. Unfortunately, it looks like 2020 is going to be another record year for aphids and test our control strategies even more thoroughly.
“Monitoring beneficial insects such as ladybirds and lacewings is also important as these have an incredibly important role to play. BBRO is looking at how we can increase the number and diversity of beneficial insects. This includes the growing of species such as phacelia and buckwheat in strips either in or around sugar beet crops.”
The other challenge of 2019 was the weather and it looks as though 2020 will follow a similar pattern, as Simon explains:
“At the BBRO BeetTech20 conference, Professor Steve Dorling of UEA gave a presentation on climate change, and – as if on cue – the 2020 season arrived and looks set to deliver just what he predicted: warm dry springs and summers, and warm and wet autumns and winters.
“This same weather pattern had a considerable impact on sugar beet in 2019 – the late summer drought reduced yields in many crops, especially those on lighter soil types. There was a lot of wilting in crops, which led to senescence of the leaves, reducing the amount of crop canopies available to intercept the light.
“When the rain eventually came in September, crops were able to recover but had to use their hard-gained sugar reserves to regenerate their leaf canopies. Overall, this resulted in some lower yields and sugar contents.
“Then, of course, once the rain started, it didn’t stop! This increased foliage disease, especially diseases such as Cercospora, which thrives in warm and wet conditions. The rain also meant that harvest operators struggled to lift as much of the crop as possible without taking too much soil with it.
“The result was a harvest campaign that turned into a genuine ‘battle campaign’ with many fields ending up looking like the Somme!”
BBRO is working hard to help growers to deal with these impacts. It has been focusing on increasing the resilience of soils to drought by using tools such as applying organic manures and planting cover crops ahead of sugar beet, and these have been shown to work very effectively. 2020 is already off to a very dry start, reinforcing the need to consider our options and to identify innovative solutions.
“Improving soils can also have a positive effect when it comes to harvesting, especially through improved drainage,” Simon continues. “Linked to this, there is considerable benefit in having a harvesting specialist help with the harvester set-up and operation. We saw last year how farmers that took this step were able to recover as much of the crop as possible.”
In addition, sugar beet also has a vital role in the rotation as a break crop, helping to break the cycle of weeds, pests and diseases that build-up in other crops, especially cereals.
In an era of using less pesticide to control these challenges, crop rotation is a key strategy. Being a spring-sown break crop, sugar beet is especially important as this provides a ‘window’ to control weeds such a blackgrass but also allows growers to grow a cover crop and apply organic manures.
The BBRO is keen that the benefits of growing sugar beet within a rotation are shared and it has a vibrant Demonstration Farm network that has been running for three years, with very good attendance at its various meetings.
Simon comments that there is no doubt that there is truth in the saying ‘seeing is believing’ and standing in a field looking at a new variety, seed treatment or cultivation approach provokes great discussion between growers.
He says: “Having something local also resonates with growers, and we have some amazing Demo Farm host growers who are prepared to share their crops ‘warts and all’ with fellow growers. These are vital catalysts to grower-to-grower discussions, sometimes even with follow-up visits to explore something in more detail.
“BBRO have been able to drill some demonstrations on four farms in 2020 and we are currently planning a programme of virtual Demo-Farm meetings. Details of these will be on the BBRO website www.bbro.co.uk.”