Norfolk sugar beet grower scooped top place in a competition to find growers who have achieved the highest percentage of their crop's maximum potential yield.
Will Jones of Salle Farms, Norfolk, was named as the overall winner of the inaugural Beet Research Organisation Beet Yield Challenge - an industry initiative set up in 2016 between British Sugar, the BBRO, NFU and Hutchinsons, with Dr Philip Draycott as an independent expert.
The overall champion was named at the Royal Norfolk Show last month. Other growers from East Anglia were among the area winners, including Guy Hitchcock of Hitchcock Farms, Suffolk and Mark Means of JS Means, Norfolk.
All four finalists established more than 110,000 plants/ha and maximised early ground cover to help crops exceed 85% of the target yield potential for their respective sites, as assessed by the BBRO using the Beet Gro model.
Rapid canopy growth
Across all 28 fields entered during the 2017/18 season, the average yield of 97.4t/ha was equivalent to an impressive 73.5% of estimated potential yield, due in part to favourable early summer weather allowing rapid canopy growth followed by plenty of rain to keep everything going.
Hutchinsons root crop technical manager Darryl Shailes said “People are always looking for a quick fix or silver bullet to increase yields, but there isn’t one and this competition clearly shows that maximising yields is about doing the basic things really well with incredible attention to detail.
“Creating the right seedbed conditions and sowing crops at a rate that achieves the optimum plant population and good early ground cover to maximise light interception is fundamental.”
This meant ideal cultivation systems, sowing dates, crop agronomy and harvest regimes would vary for individual farm situations and soil types, with marginal gains in each area combining to give a bigger overall performance.
A 1% improvement in everything you do could add up to something remarkable, said Mr Shailes “One of the comments around this huge effort of capturing in excess of 95% of the crop’s potential was that it was about doing lots of things just a little bit better every year.”
The BBRO recommends at least 100,000 plants/ha must be established for optimum yield. Drilling at 1.25 units/ha will achieve this target where establishment is 80%. But establishment is often lower, which reduces the established plant population and limits yield potential from the outset.
As the winners demonstrated, establishment is a big part of their success. “You need to look carefully at exactly what establishment percentage you’re achieving in the field and find ways to improve it, or increase seed rates, where it isn’t giving the optimum plant stand.”
Establishment is often lower on headlands and areas where seed-beds are poor, so there may be a case for using variable seed rates, said Mr Shailes. Just one shading plant/m² could cause a 1t/ha yield loss. Having the correct pH was also vital and something that was easily overlooked.
More generally, the focus should be on avoiding or correcting soil compaction, which can inhibit germination and root growth, providing adequate early nitrogen to support rapid, dense canopy growth, and minimising weed competition.
“It’s not necessarily about lateness of harvest, because the wining crop was lifted relatively early” said Mr Shailes. “The first year of the Challenge went very well and we learnt a lot. Hopefully the 4 winners pick up a few tips from their trip to the AB sugar plant in Spain to further push British beet yields forward.”