Spring 2020: An Agronomist’s Perspective – British Sugar Beet Review – Darryl Shailes

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Darryl Shailes v2Hutchinsons agronomist, Darryl Shailes, outlines the key areas of focus and consideration for growers as they plan their drilling & establishment strategies for the coming months.

2019 was a good year for sugar beet overall. Yields were strong apart from the lightest of soils where the prolonged dry spell went on a bit too long, the June rain didn't last long enough and the crop didn't really have time to fully compensate when the longer period of wet weather eventually came in September.

But nobody needs reminding that its hardly stopped raining since September and as I write this (late November 2019), soils are getting saturated and even small amounts of rain now are causing issues with run-off and surface waterlogging.

Sugar beet lifting has been a struggle in these conditions and sugars have been dropping with the prolonged wet and overcast weather. Cercospora has come in late and has been defoliating some plants so adding to the issue with the weather.

Cereal drilling after beet conversely has sometimes been better than some fields that have been bare since the rape harvest as the crop has continued to remove water through transpiration until very recently.

These wet soils will now be the most important thing to focus on this coming spring to get our beet crop well established.

I once read that the word 'agronomist' originated from Greek and was “a keeper of the soil", so helping growers manage their soils this spring and into the future is an increasingly vital role of the modern agronomist.

We should all know the good and bad fields on the farm and where to start with cultivations, but maybe creating a farm map over the winter months with a traffic light system with red, orange and green fields may help to focus our minds especially as many growers are now farming increasingly larger areas where their long-term knowledge and experience may be limited.

Mapping and zoning of different soil types is now possible with modern technology and we use a system called TerraMap to provide high-definition imagery. Having a map of sand and clay content across fields and farms could be a huge benefit this coming spring to focus our efforts.

We must remember to keep out of the plasticine zone of soils at working depth to limit damage with cultivations, so a spade will be essential to understand the profile. Sugar beet tap-roots suffer in compaction so time planning our approach now can pay dividends in the spring.

Cover crops have not established well in general and flea beetle are attacking some brassica species hard, so we may not have the benefit of them helping to dry soils.

Conversely, where we do have large cover crops, they should be destroyed well in advance of the beet being drilled to allow the water that the root systems will have maintained near the surface to drain away before cultivations begin.

The long-term aim of building soil structure through the use of cover crops and organic amendments of some description is paying dividends and aiding drainage in many fields. The soil's ability to manage itself when we encourage the biological components such as worms, arthropods and the various different microbial life can really help in difficult times. This activity makes soils more resilient in the extremes we've seen in recent seasons.

Starter fertilisers will be worth considering. In our trial work, looking at a range of starters from simply placing DAP to using the more complex micro-granules, we always get an initial benefit.

This doesn't always equate to a yield benefit at harvest but the advantages in early establishment can aid weed control and potentially virus management. So, as long it's taken into account in the overall nutritional inputs, it can be a very useful strategy, especially in a potentially delayed drilling period if the wet weather continues.

Other things to consider are how we can reduce the transmission of virus from old crop and other hosts to the 2020 crop. Good hygiene around the farm will be essential to remove spoil with crown growth, and manage it in cereals where fields have been min-tilled.

Virus control was good in 2019, but the loss of Biscaya will challenge us once again. We can only hope that Dr Mark Stevens of BBRO can once again get an emergency approval to help if needed, as he has done so successfully in the past.

Weed control in beet will be changing for some, as the market is limited in the amount of Desmedipham-based products available. It's also the last year of approval for Desmedipham so we will all have to manage weeds differently in 2021, going back to the means we had several years ago. More pre-emergent herbicide may be needed going forward. We need to be careful though as the labels for some of the products based on Ethofumesate do not allow pre- and post-emergent use, further complicating the issue. The loss of Chloridazon and the change in the approval for Lenacil mean that the pre-emergence market will be very limited in actives available. Dimethenamid P and Quinmerac are approved in beet, so although limited in weed spectrum, may help to get around some of the issues with the Ethofumesate labels and loss of actives.

So, all-in-all there's plenty to consider during the dark days of winter, but remember, the nights are already starting to draw out as we head towards spring.