Farmers Guide is celebrating 40 years of publishing in 2019 – the first magazine was printed in September 1979. Here, independent consultant and sugar industry specialist Robin Limb looks back over 40 years and highlights progress in the sugar beet crop, and the advances that have contributed to today’s productivity over that period.
In the past 40 years, sugar beet grower numbers have fallen from over 13,000 to around 3,000 today. This does not indicate an industry in terminal decline however. The average area sown by those remaining has more than doubled from 15 to 40ha during the period, and productivity has increased massively, stabilising sugar output. Consolidation and rationalisation of the grower base has allowed huge crop improvements and economies of scale to be exploited. Further concentration of the industry may eventuate, and sugar beet growing could yet go the way of the potato industry in the 1980s, with fewer, larger, and more specialist operators, better able to focus on greater output and lower costs.
In 1979, many of the technological ‘tools’ we now take for granted did not exist. In the intervening years, average yields have nearly doubled from around 40t/ha to close-on 80t/ha. There are multiple factors that have contributed to this achievement.
Crop protection advances have delivered more reliable yields, allowing average plant populations to grow from around 60,000/ha to in excess of 100,000/ha today. This has been assisted by the contribution from improved seed varieties, adding around 2 per cent of yield annually. The introduction of pesticide seed treatments in the 1990s was a major step forward, cutting the amount of active ingredient applied per hectare by a factor of 10, while providing more reliable control of a range of pests. But the recent ban on the use of neonicotinoids has the potential to introduce more variable yields in the future.
Over the past 40 years, herbicide usage has been halved in terms of active ingredient applied per hectare, and nitrogen rates have been cut by 40 per cent, but yields have continued to increase despite this. More efficient application technology, coupled with better optimisation and timing, has allowed ‘more to be achieved with less’.
The beet crop is now totally mechanised, and a modern harvester can lift as much in one hour as single-row machine could in a whole day in 1979. Technological advances have reduced the man-hours required to grow a hectare of beet from 100 to just 10 today. The handwork previously required to control weeds has been virtually eliminated. GPS guidance systems, precision farming techniques and remote telemetry are now taken for granted, but in 1979 they were unheard of. Precision seed drills have been around for a while, but the advent of synchronised electronic drives, and computerised systems, allows for accurate spatial arrangement of plants, and seed is not wasted by ‘over-drilling’ on headlands.
A continued focus on industry-supported research and development has undoubtedly contributed to the agronomic benefits and yield improvements enjoyed today. The BBRO (British Beet Research Organisation) – formerly the SBREC (Sugar Beet Research and Education Committee) – is still funded jointly by growers and British Sugar to the tune of over £2m annually, and conducts trials work – as it has done over the past 40 years and before. Together with R&D projects investigating all aspects of the crop, it runs a comprehensive technology transfer programme aimed at ensuring the results of research are conveyed effectively to growers and are translated into best practise on the farm.
Storage and processing
The way beet is now handled, stored and loaded before delivery has improved significantly over the years. Growers understand far more about how to minimise both harvesting and storage losses, avoiding unnecessary bruising and root breakage to limit losses. This helps to ensure the maximum percentage of biological yield gets converted into paid yield at the factory gate. Most hauliers now operate in conjunction with harvesting contractors to ensure ‘just-in-time’ deliveries, rather than beet having to sit in clamps for several weeks.
In 1979 there were 17 factories in operation, but in 1980, following a run of poor crops, the EU imposed a cut in the UK’s allowed sugar quota. At the time this left British Sugar with no option but to rationalise its business and consequently four of the smaller sites closed in 1981. Despite this, the remaining 13 factories processed more beet in the following year than the previous one. Today there are just four sites left operating, but together these can process around the same daily volume as in 1979, thanks to continuous capital investment in capacity and efficiency, amounting to £250m in the past 5 years alone.
The UK’s sugar beet industry can demonstrate a remarkable record of achievement over the past 40 years, and should continue to do so in the future. Not every year can it deliver a good crop, but in the past 10 years there have been 5 yield records broken – the latest being in 2017/18 when the average was 83.4t/ha of adjusted beet. This compares with the previous record of 79.8t/ha.
Whatever challenges the industry may face in the future, it can continue to build on past successes with the involvement of all stakeholders working together to preserve this lasting legacy for years to come.
Robin Limb (below) has over 30 years’ knowledge and experience of the UK and global sugar industry and is now an independent business consultant.