Sugar beet update from inside the Wissington factory
16th December 2023
British Sugar’s Wissington factory opened its doors to press at the end of November, providing an update on this year’s campaign and work being done to tackle virus yellows and carbon emissions – as well as answering questions on next year’s beet contracts. Sarah Kidby reports.
Whilst UK beet production dropped off in 2022 – primarily due to the frost event, drought and new pest challenge in the beet moth – the crop is expected to return to more normal levels this year. However, the changing climate demonstrates that we can’t take our foot off the peddle when it comes to maintaining the yield progression we’ve seen in recent years, said Andrew Dear, head of agricultural technical support.
“This year’s crop looks really healthy; we’ve had minimal impact of virus yellows,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve had the derogation this year and about 60% of the crop was treated with Cruiser seed treatment. We’re seeing minimal impact in both treated and non-treated crops. Cruiser is just a first step and we also have foliar insecticides to control aphids as well. This year we’ve been quite successful in doing that, and we’ve seen a very low level of virus across the whole crop.”
At the start of the year, the Rothamsted model had indicated there would be a significant virus yellows problem in the absence of chemical control, but cold wet weather in spring significantly impacted aphid first flights. The three-year derogation period is now up, but British Sugar has applied again for 2024.
Transmitted by aphids, particularly the peach potato aphid, virus yellows is a complex of three viruses: beet mild yellowing, which can cause losses of approximately 28%, chlorosis (22% losses) and BYV (up to 50% losses).
The British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO), jointly funded by UK beet growers and British Sugar, has earmarked much of its research funding to virus yellows, as one of the biggest threats to the UK beet industry. Areas being explored include chemistry, gene editing, rotational control and camouflaged crops to prevent aphids landing. When it comes to chemistry, the future will lie away from neonics, veering more towards foliar insecticides.
Andrew added that whilst significant rainfall presented a challenge in the early part of the season, they had worked with hauliers to keep throughput going. Additionally, issues with the lime kiln feed last year, particularly at the Cantley factory, had been addressed, and all factories were running well.
Beet contracts for 2024/25
At the time of the event, negotiations with NFU Sugar on the contract price for 2024/25 were ongoing – but it’s since been announced that two weeks of intense talks failed to reach an agreement. British Sugar’s head of corporate affairs, Olivia Seccombe said during the press day that a “significant number” of its 2,300 growers signed up to the original offer released in November, before contracting was paused. These contracts are valid, she confirmed, and growers will have the option to move across to any new offer agreed with NFU Sugar.
Olivia said the offer had been released ahead of an agreement with NFU Sugar as many growers had been seeking certainty, allowing them to get seeds ordered.
Following the negotiations, British Sugar improved its offer to include a £40/t fixed price option, or £38/t plus market-linked bonus (with yield protection costing £1 in either case). A future negotiation process was also agreed, whereby negotiations would begin in May each year and growers would usually get a crop price in July. There would also be a British Sugar/NFU escalation and dispute resolution process ending no later than 31st October. The outstanding contract term that remained in dispute was the futures linked contract, which allows growers to play on the world market for sugar. Arbitration was expected to take 2–3 months to complete, so contract and seed order screens were due to reopen on 18th December 2023, British Sugar confirmed.
The beet price for 2023 went up 48% to £40/t, mainly to reflect the spike in fertiliser and energy costs, but inputs have now reduced slightly and indexes suggest sugar prices have peaked and are now coming down, Olivia said. However, one visitor noted that the way British Sugar views the balance of risk and reward differs from growers and NFU Sugar – with growers seeing the potential for £50/t through the future linked contract and feeling that British Sugar is not sharing its profits when times are good. However, Olivia said the futures linked contract is available for those growers “with a big appetite for risk”, but the price “will go up and it will absolutely come down”. Andrew shared that the futures contact has worked very favourably for growers over the past two years, but there are concerns about being exposed to too much potential risk.
Other features in the original offer included a cash advance in June to help summer cashflows, frost insurance (included with all contracts to cover production costs), and local premiums for growers within 20 miles of the factories (starting at £2/t for 1 mile, on a sliding scale down). There was also an additional tonnage option, late delivery allowance to cover storage losses (payments would start on 26th December) and a beet delivery service, allowing growers to either have haulage allowance paid, or get an ex-farm beet price and British Sugar negotiates and arranges deliveries. In-house soil sampling, with additional services through NRM, are also available.
British Sugar has restarted its harvester evaluations at the request of growers, which help growers to recover as much of the crop and get it into the factory as possible. Additionally, it has been looking at a Field to Factory Partnership aiming to improve the efficiency of deliveries.