The first five months of 2018 have been an interesting time for sugar beet growers. For us, here in the UK, it was the fourth week in March that finally saw the end of what was a record-breaking Campaign. The 2017/18 beet harvest set a new, all-time record average yield of 83.35 adjusted tonnes per hectare, with all factories recording their best ever yields – Cantley finished with an astounding factory average of 90.64 adjusted tonnes per hectare.
More than 306,000 loads of beet were delivered to the UK’s factories, with Newark running for a record 195 days’ before finally closing its gates on 27th March. Inevitably, perhaps, the 2017/18 Campaign had to favour throughput over sugar extraction, but with a Campaign average sugar content of 17.81%, it wasn’t a bad year for this character by any stretch and, if every last bit of sugar had been removed, dare I say it, even more time factory running would have been needed!
2018-2019: Here We Go Again…
Barely had the last factory closed its gates than we were drilling again, and what a sowing season it has turned out to be. The 2018 sowing season will by now have already set a new record for the latest ever in living memory, with an average drilling date well after the middle of April – something that has only happened once before in the last 30 years.
However, as is often the case with these later drillings, the seed has in most cases ended up going into warm, moist seedbeds and has consequently sprung out of the ground. Cotyledons have been visible in a matter of days and plants established in much less time than we waited for plants to emerge last year. Establishment and plant populations already look to be very good and, in some ways, with perhaps the exception of some of our northern friends, we are really not that far behind where some crops were at this time last year, and I believe that there is still everything to play for. Last year’s crop made wonderful growth in the middle and latter part of the year and we must hope for the same again.
The Loss Of Neonicotinoid Seed Treatments
April gave us the dread news that we had feared for some time; the loss of neonicotinoid seed treatments. With the withdrawal of neonicotinoid insecticide seed treatments and the subsequent loss of 12 -14 weeks of crop protection, we are undoubtedly facing some challenging times for sugar beet growing. How challenging, at this stage we can only imagine and, in this instance, it does not pay to have a lively imagination. Sugar beet though is a versatile and resilient crop and UK sugar beet growers have proven equally irrepressible and resourceful on many occasions before this one. I believe that we will rise to the challenge as the breeders will find new useful material (although the Holy Grail of Virus Yellows resistance might be a few years away), new chemistry might soon be available to help us and it is even possible that Mr. Gove might have ‘a road to Damascus’ moment and we will be alright come March 2019 after all. I also believe that the beet varieties will play their part; vigorous crops with strong populations from top-quality sugar beet seed, capable of very early drilling, or mid-early drilling, will give us the best chance of winning the race to 12 true leaves and keeping the aphid and pest threat in check.
The World Of Sugar
Meanwhile, as a backdrop to all of this and all that we do, the global and the European status of the market for sugar is not rosy. The world price of sugar continues to slide and large stockpiles weigh heavy on some of the European sugar companies, who are willing to do anything to decrease their stocks and raise cashflow. But let us not forget that we have been here before and the world will turn again.
So, to revert to my initial premise that these have been interesting times for sugar beet, I give you a short snippet from the speech delivered by Robert Kennedy in Cape Town in June 1966, when Kennedy said:
‘There is apparently a Chinese curse which says, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we do live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than at any other time in history.’