Thursday, May 23, 2019

Time to beet a retreat?

October 3, 2017 by  
Filed under Fen Tiger


With beet lifting under way, Fen Tiger says he doesn’t regret having stopped growing the crop.

Having once grown sugar beet, the crop is never far from my thoughts – especially at this time of year when lifting is under way.

I’ve grown sugar beet for most of my farming life, so when the time came, it wasn’t easy to give it up. But financial sense rather than sediment won the day and I eventually stopped. Sometimes I wish I still grew it – but deep down I know it is best not to.

At the time, oilseed rape returns were far better and the beet price was wallowing in the depths at about £18-19/t. Virgin rape yields were extremely good until flea beetle became a major problem, but I still feel the right decision was made.

It was always a challenge when the beet price fell away to maintain a decent profit – especially as the farm soil types were not always the best suited to grow the crop. When I remember back, some of the very good land would occasionally be prone to the odd fen blow in early spring.

In later years, this meant we used cover crops when growing beet. Established in early March, they were most often barley, sometimes wheat. Before cover crops, we used straw after drilling – but at times it failed to work or was a devil to remove with a tractor hoe.

Three-man job

It was a three-man operation, with one driver and two men standing on the back laying the bunched straw down the conveyor belt to the large discs which pressed the straw into the ground. It was not the best of jobs and a pleasure when cover crops replaced the straw planter.

Early herbicides worked well, with the ever trusted Herbon Gold being the first point of contact. A few other well-known herbicides and the job was done. The point of all this past history is that British Sugar would always
offer advice on all aspects of the crop.

If you had a late flush of willow weed or fat hen and couldn’t decide whether to spend money on chemical control or rely on the tractor hoe to remove the weeds, the advice was to spend the money on the chemical but still use the tractor hoe to help control the volunteer beet.

Similarly, a healthy dose of P, K and lime was encouraged to increase soil indices. Despite their own lime sometimes having a lower neutralising value than other available brands, the advice always seemed to be to use it anyway.


Like me, recent years have seen more farmers give up on beet and grow alternative spring crops instead. Other farmers have considered growing sugar beet to feed anaerobic digesters rather than for processing.

British Sugar eventually decided to start growing the crop itself to ensure the company’s factories had enough sugar beet to process. This involved finding farmers or contractors willing to drill, spray and harvest the crop on land rented by the processor.

This year, I’ve found myself amazed at how untidy and dirty some beet looks. Not beet grown by farmers, I hasten to add, but beet being grown on behalf of British Sugar. And the farmers whose land it is worries it is giving them a bad name.

I have seen some contractors topping crops to flail down the rubbish which sticks above the beet leaves. And I’ve seen large areas of beet not tractor-hoed – even the headland overlaps. The result not only looks untidy, it makes it harder to lift.

The differences between the two approaches are most obvious when a British Sugar field is next to a farmer’s own beet crop. One field will usually look much tidier than the other – yet given all their expertise you would expect them both to be equally good.

I guess the aim is to grow the beet as cost-effectively as possible – sticking to a strict budget largely regardless of weeds or problems present. But all plans and budgets need flexibility – and should be adaptable according to circumstances.

I can’t help but thinking that growers and British Sugar should each stick to their strengths: farmers should be left to grow the crop and the processor  should process it, rather than trying to grow its own.


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