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Sugar Beet

Making light work of a difficult season

Reliability and efficiency are not the only requirements for Suffolk farmer and contractor Guy Hitchcock. Spending long hours in the operator seat means his machinery must also be a pleasure to use. David Williams reports.

Trading as Hitchcock Farms, Ringshall, the family business involves Guy, his wife Liz, son William and daughter Katherine. Approximately 700ha is farmed which is a mix of owned and contract-farmed land. There is also a very successful contracting enterprise focussed around the area’s sugar beet crop, which started when Guy bought his first self-propelled Matrot harvester in the late 1980s. Now 1,200ha is lifted, including 160ha of the Hitchcock’s own crop, and regular customers include farms from near Bury St Edmunds in West Suffolk, to the coast.

Specialist service

The family’s involvement with sugar beet isn’t just harvesting, and Guy drills approximately 500ha as well as preparing seedbeds for several farms. The latest six-row Holmer Exxact Terra Dos T4-30 harvester is Guy’s second of the model and the fourth Holmer, after a succession of Matrot machines. An articulated chassis and four-wheel steering provide excellent manoeuvrability and Terra Dos crab-steer mode evenly distributes the weight, reducing rutting and compaction. The harvester arrived in September 2019 and has since worked almost 1,000 hours. “I believe it’s the best available,” explained Guy. “It’s ideal for our operation with plenty of power, and incredibly fuel efficient.”

T4 series updates over previous models include a new engine, more efficient hydraulic drive, better manoeuvrability, and improved lifting performance.

Ease of use

Guy said that the latest T4-30 is very user-friendly and the latest automatic steering and lifter depth adjustment reduce fatigue. “A foliage sensor at the front of the topper follows the rows and signals from potentiometers on the shear lifting units measure side forces,” explained Guy. “Between them they calculate the optimum position for the harvester and align the chassis to suit. Apart from during headland turns I rarely touch the steering wheel, even in heavy, wet conditions and that is something that has impressed users of other brands who have spent time in the cab with me.”

Guy’s earlier harvesters had depth wheels on the lifting unit, but these are missing from his current machine with the topper and lifting unit linkage-mounted on the front chassis instead. “I wouldn’t go back to depth wheels,” he commented. “Without them, header performance is improved, there is no risk of them blocking or hitting obstructions and operation is easier.”

The shares have Holmer’s EasyLift automatic depth control with independent lifter adjustment also possible through the main joystick. This allows compensation for beet rows of uneven depth against a wheeling, for example. “In practice I never use the manual independent adjustment as the automatic system copes so well,” said Guy.

Efficient cleaning

Soils in Guy’s contracting area range from sand to heavy clay, and lifting shares are preferred to Oppel wheels. The latest T4 harvesters feature seven pre-cleaning rollers which accept beet from the lifters and transfer it to the main cleaning turbines. Previous models had six, and Guy said the extended cleaning section improves performance. The main cleaning area is also improved with larger turbines – up to 1,700mm diameter and a 900mm wide transfer web. From the in-cab display the user can adjust each turbine and web to achieve the cleaning action required.

A clear view of the lifting shares allows issues to be spotted quickly, and Guy’s harvester also has on-board cameras monitoring the web cleaning area.

The tapered body allows good visibility along the sides of the machine, although Guy also has side and rear cameras providing an all-around ‘overhead’ image displayed on the dedicated in-cab screen.

The header has automatic height adjustment and is carried on the front of the harvester chassis, without
the need for depth wheels.

Management information

A new feature is Holmer EasyHelp 4.0. This telematics package is still in development and Guy doesn’t yet have immediate access to the data produced, although he expects the information available to appeal to his customers.   

Service information includes engine and machine system performance data. Service requirements can be monitored, allowing maintenance planning around work schedules. Remote diagnostics allows technicians to log in and check for faults, potentially reducing downtime for repairs.

Task management recording includes machine location and job progress. The information can be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection and work data can be downloaded onto farm management systems through the Agrirouter data exchange, by the owner and authorised third parties.

A feature Guy would like included is yield mapping. “It would be useful for my own crops as well as for my customers’, and although I’m told that it’s in development, it’s not yet available,” he added.

Nothing to dislike

Asked what improvements are needed for future Holmer harvesters, Guy said there is nothing he considers a problem. “It’s a great design and very reliable,” he said. “This season’s working conditions were some of the worst since I started in the 1980s, but the harvester coped well, the cab was comfortable and quiet, and the automation made the job easier. Because I never feel I’m fighting the machine I relax at home in the evening and the next morning look forward to another day in the cab. Holmer has the design right. We usually update the machine every two years and the cost is reasonable. Agrifac UK’s back-up is excellent, and repairs and servicing are carried out quickly and efficiently. They are great to deal with and I don’t need to consider other options.”

New high-tech beet lifter arrives in the UK

After launching at Agritechnica in November, the first Tiger 6S self-propelled sugar beet lifter has arrived in the UK for demonstrations of its high-tech features.

German beet specialist Ropa presented the Tiger 6S at Agritechnica, demonstrating new high-tech features that aim for a better harvest quality and significantly easier operation. Two new developments that automatically adjust the working depths of the harvesting attachment are the R-Trim – which auto-adjusts the defoliator height – and R-Contour, which automatically shares depth adjustment of the individual rows at the RR lifting unit.

Both systems adapt their working depth to the changing conditions in the beet crop throughout the field. The automatic systems react to different crown heights or to ground unevenness crosswise to the direction of travel. The currently used measuring system at the scalper has been extended by an additional measuring system for recording the ground contour directly at the beet rows.

A new powerful on-board computer on the lifting unit of the Tiger 6S reads all measured values within a split second and – with the aid of the newly developed software – changes the defoliator height or the lifting depth of the individual rows. The combination and interaction of both systems significantly relieves the driver, which allows partly autonomous guiding of the lifter attachment. Topping losses due to changes in the condition of the crop are avoided without stress for the driver, despite the reduction in the size of cut-off leaf stalks. This prevents not only the unnecessary pickup of soil by the lifting share and increased fuel consumption due to excessively deep lifting, but also root fracture of the beet if harvesting too flat.

Sales manager for Ropa beet harvesters at CTM Root Crop Systems, Simon Peacock, is currently trying out the new advancements for himself. Simon will then be able to pass on first-hand information about the benefits to clients wanting to trade up to a new Ropa Tiger 6S.

Virus yellows-tolerant sugar beet for 2020

KWS offers three tolerant varieties this year following inoculated trials, which show good tolerance to BYMV and are yield competitive.

The threat of virus yellows is arguably the biggest danger to the sugar beet sector in Europe and nowhere is this risk being felt more acutely than in the UK. A broad range of plant species either harbour the virus or provide sanctuary for vectors during the winter months, while our maritime climate ensures we rarely receive the harsh weather needed to stem aphid populations.

Protecting crops against this complex of viruses that can reduce yields by up to 50 per cent is made more difficult by the spread of insecticide resistance among the principal vector, the peach-potato aphid (Myzus persicae). About 90 per cent of peach-potato aphid are resistant to carbamate and pyrethroid insecticides. Finding a solution to this problem is undoubtedly the breeding challenge of our time.

The introduction of the first neonicotinoid seed treatments in the mid-1990s relieved much of the pressure on breeders to develop sources of virus yellows tolerance, but it does not mean that all progress has been lost, as Ben Bishop, UK country manager for KWS sugar beet, explains.

“Even as neonic seed treatments were gaining popularity across Europe, KWS was developing virus tolerant varieties. In 2003 we had Jemina KWS, a variety with tolerance to beet mild yellowing virus (BYMV), in official trials. BYMV is a persistent form of virus yellows and has been found to cause losses of up to 30 per cent,” he says.

Once it became clear however, that the EU was seeking to withdraw approval for products containing neonicotinoids, KWS revived its virus yellows breeding programme. Jemina KWS was a useful starting point and meant the company didn’t have to screen wild relatives of the crop for sources of tolerance, says Mr Bishop.

“KWS has made rapid progress in meeting the needs of UK growers,” he adds. “Following two years of inoculated trials in the UK, we had two tolerant varieties in official trials during 2019 and will have three in 2020. All have demonstrated good tolerance to BYMV and are yield competitive, even under non-inoculated conditions, so will form a valuable component on an integrated strategy.”

The ‘thoroughbred’ sugar beet drill

The key to high yield is placing seed at a consistent depth with accurate spacing and even soil-to-seed contact, according to Steve Twist, managing director of specialist importers Toucan Farm Machinery. He added: “Seventy per cent of your potential yield has been decided by the time you leave the field with your precision drill.”

Precision planter specialist Monosem produces the latest Meca V4E ‘thoroughbred sugar beet drill’, which Toucan says is the best high-speed drill available for sugar beet. A large-diameter five cell seed disc not only singulates the seeds but also gives the seed a velocity matching ground speed. This ‘dead-drop’ ensures the most accurate seed spacing and depth, giving the best possible seed placement into a narrow soil seed groove, unlike a high velocity blown seed which has to lose its additional speed, with potential bounce and loss of accuracy.

The range is available with traditional mechanical drive row units or the latest Isobus, AEF-approved, electric drive versions, enabling tramlining to match any sprayer pattern, and maintaining plant size alongside the missing row through automatic seed rate increase. It also provides (TC-SC) which allows individual rows to be switched off to avoid ‘over-sowing’ on the headlands, and Geo-control (TC-GEO), which enables variable seed rate control in accordance with prescribed field maps.

All Monosem drills parallel fold (stack horizontally), not tipping the row units on their sides, to avoid damaging side forces on the row units.

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