Following the difficulties experienced by some growers with the establishment of sugar beet crops this season
Following the difficulties and current confusion experienced by some growers with the establishment of sugar beet crops this season, Dominic Kilburn takes a timely trip to the Continent to look behind the scenes of one of the world’s largest sugar beet seed producers.
Over the next few weeks, sugar beet growers will have to make the decision as to which varieties they will sow for the 2014-15 planted crop. And while this is normally a relatively straightforward process of consulting the latest BBRO Recommended List (as published in the June edition of Farmers Guide) as well as considering varieties that have already performed well on farm, the decision this year is somewhat muddied by the conundrum of what caused the poor establishment that took place earlier this season. The industry awaits BBRO-led independent research into the potential causes, but what is known is that the problems were found in most of the top performing varieties on the List, across variable soil types and in several geographic locations, and the general consensus is that the unseasonably cold temperatures above and below ground at, or around, drilling time have played their part.“What’s happened to some of this season’s sugar beet crop in the UK is a wake-up call in terms of traceability,” said SESVanderHave UK’s general manager Ian Munnery (left), speaking from the company’s European-based seed production heartland in north east Italy.”If you buy a product as a farmer or contractor, you expect it to work,” he stressed. “Yes, there’s always an element of risk when drilling anything and judgement calls have to be made in terms of drill timing and the conditions, but sufficient checks have been put in place by the breeder right the way through the seed production process, from pre-production through to final delivery to Germains for priming, pelleting and coating, to ensure that only the highest quality seed arrives on farm to provide the grower with the best opportunity to achieve a successful crop,” he stated.”Seed production and traceability of sugar beet seed is miles ahead of where it used to be, and if there is a positive to be taken out of this season so far it is the fact that the need has been highlighted for better traceability of seed once it leaves the breeder, if we are to avoid some of the confusion that has been found on farm recently.”Ian added that the UK market was unique, where all breeders deliver their seed to another organisation for priming, pelleting and coating, rather than doing those tasks themselves.”To push yields to the next step, breeders and farmers need to be able to work out how varieties are performing and while RL data is solid, it’s equally important to see data from growers themselves to assess how their crops deliver in commercial situations.”Simply recording seed box numbers at sowing, or when passing seed over to a contractor ensuring it is the specific trait (BCN, AYPR, RZ1) required, will help growers determine individual variety performance, while barcoding of boxes and even colour coding of seed according to their designated traits would be a sensible addition too, he suggested.”We should look at other crop traceability programmes such as in vegetables and potatoes and learn from those for the mutual benefit of the industry in the future,” he added.Seed production
The vast majority of seed destined for UK planting each year is produced in a swath of fertile land in the eastern side of the Emilia-Romagna region of north east Italy, in addition to land across southern France at the same latitude.About 3,500ha of silty loam and fen-like, well-drained soils provide the perfect growing environment for sugar beet seed in Italy, of which SESVanderHave has approximately 1,400ha of crops currently in the ground – all grown by a dedicated team of professional farmers and agronomists.However, it’s not just the UK climate that has played havoc with crops this season as, even in the traditionally warmer climes of the Adriatic, unseasonably cold weather earlier this spring affected crop growth, said the company’s seed production manager in Italy, Pierluigi Pieri. “Up until early June we had a very cold spring and I would estimate that the seed crop is approximately three weeks behind a normal year,” he commented. “I’ve never known a year like it but a lot will depend on the weather between now and the seed harvest,” added Pierluigi (right).Unlike most other conventional seed crops, sugar beet seed production is a protracted three year, two-tier process with seed originally planted in a ‘nursery’ on sandy soil in August, by pneumatic drill. Immediately after sowing, plants are irrigated to ensure uniform establishment.The small plants or ‘stecklings’, as they are known, are then mechanically lifted in February and March having over-wintered and vernalised under fleece (to keep frosts at bay), before being individually hand planted in designated fields by workers operating on the rear of a drill.Two rows of ‘pollinator’ plants are planted with three rows of ‘female’ plants either side to maximise the opportunity for pollination as well as ensuring protection from wild beet and other weed pollen. “We work very hard throughout May and June with the farmers to destroy any nearby weeds such as Swiss chard, spinach and red beet which could contaminate the seed crop,” said Pierluigi, who pointed out that it’s essential that fields have a minimum crop rotation of four years for seed crops and that breeders have a clear idea of the distance from other sugar beet fields before transplanting, in order to avoid contamination from other varieties.
“All breeders with seed crops in the region understand that a high level of isolation is required,” he pointed out. “It is important to thoroughly destroy the multigerm pollinator before harvest to ensure only the monogerm seed bearer is harvested,” he added. Seed harvest usually begins around mid-July and concludes in early August before the rigorous testing of seed begins back at the company’s HQ in Belgium and which includes, critically for the UK market, bolting tests.By the time the seed has been tested for key attributes such as germination, genetic purity, numerous traits and size, and then polished and tested again for bolting, 75 per cent of the originally harvested seed crop is lost, such is the exacting standard of quality the company demands of the seed it sells.
“Every seed lot destined for the UK, and some of the other maritime countries in Western Europe, will have samples grown under glass in Belgium and Holland during August and September for bolting tests,” explained Ian Munnery.”Testing for bolting will continue for 8-12 weeks through until November to ensure seed has a low level of contamination and a low level of genetic potential to bolt. It’s important that we all understand which varieties can be sown early, and which should be ‘normal sown’.
“In borderline cases, some seed is even shipped out to South America, to Argentina or Chile, for outdoor planting and further testing. Quality is paramount and, until bolting tests are complete, we simply won’t release seed to the market,” he added.”It’s critical that the calls we make now in terms of the traits we want are the right ones for the future. The resource within our business is there with 400 staff dedicated to R&D and 17 per cent of turnover ploughed back into re-investment for product we might see in 10-20 years’ time.”One of the next steps is water and nitrogen use efficiency in the crop but we can only achieve that by constant re-investment,” he commented.
“With traits for each country planned many years ahead, growers need to talk to us and tell us what their priorities are; whether it is sugar yield or something else,” said Ian, “and, as they look to order seed over the next two months, they need to be reassured that we continue to look at the detail every step of the way.”SUGAR BEET SEED FACTS
- SESVanderHave claims to have one third of the global sugar beet seed market and is the leading supplier in Northern Europe.
- The company sells 360 varieties across 52 countries.
- SESVanderHave has 150,000 sugar beet trial plots in Europe.
- It has 17,000 trial plots in the UK including BBRO yield and early sowing trials
- Such is the rigorous testing for seed quality during production that only 25 per cent of the harvested seed makes it on farm for drilling.
- The company re-invests 17 per cent of turnover in R&D.