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Growing Sugar Beet In A Time Of Drought

The Summer of 2018: 1976 Part 2?

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There is an old Norfolk saying, ‘It never rains in a dry time’. This is not as daft as it sounds, in the sense that once a blocking area of high-pressure becomes firmly established over the UK, it may stubbornly refuse to shift. This is exactly what happened in 1976 – a year that any farmer old enough to remember may choose to forget.

In 1976 we had snowflakes on 1st June and, apart from isolated thunderstorms, it did not rain until September, which then delivered 175mm of rainfall in just a few short weeks. I remember this mainly because it brought down my carefully constructed straw stack though sheer weight of water. The weather has a way of evening itself out over time.

While the ‘Long Hot Summer of ‘76 was great for sunbathing, barbecuing and endless partying, it was sadly an unmitigated disaster for farming. Yields of most crops were slashed by half and the countryside came to resemble a parched wasteland. Coupled with the quadrupling of the oil price, the mid-seventies fuel crisis, double-digit inflation, plus rampant virus yellows disease, farming prospects looked bleak.

Following the summer of 1976 there began to grow a general disenchantment with drought-prone crops such as sugar beet, as it rapidly became eclipsed by a much sexier and easier alternative - oilseed rape - as the farmer’s break-crop of choice. Americans prefer to call it Canola instead, due to the offensive connotations of the word ‘rape’. The European name derives from the land-hungry nature of the crop, literally capable of stripping the ground of nutrients.

A consequence of this volte face was that the fuel-hungry and tedious practice of ploughing to prepare the land for cereals soon fell from grace. Conventional ploughs were consigned to the nettles in the rush to wholesale combinable cropping. Minimal cultivation - or even no cultivation at all - known as ‘direct drilling’ or ‘no-till’ was hailed as the answer to the maiden’s prayer. Farming was now a nine-month occupation with the dreary winter months being spent in the Caribbean rather than having to pull the covers over sugar beet heaps in a force-eight gale.

2018: 1976 Part 2?

Although the heavens finally opened in August this year, significant yield potential has already been lost. The sugar beet crop is actually very resilient: You can throw almost anything at it and generally it somehow magically bounces back. But a lack of water availability during the summer months has a far greater negative impact on beet yield that any other factor – including pest and disease pressure.

Those that say the 2018 beet crop can somehow ‘catch up’ are deluding themselves. You cannot catch up on one month’s lost solar radiation due to delayed drilling. The best you can hope for is that the rest of the growing season is favourable and affords a decent return to the grower. At present that does look questionable. It is ironic that in 2017 a new record UK beet yield was set at 83.4t/ha, only to be followed by the prospect of a distinctly lack-lustre performance in 2018. Rarely have we seen two such diametrically-opposed, successive seasons.

2019 Sugar Beet Contract Offer

Growers have now finally received their 2019 sugar beet contract offer, and many will be questioning their options. Last year’s record crop may seem a dim and distant memory as they look out of their office window for inspiration. In 2017, over 250 growers delivered yields in excess of 100t/ha: that blew the socks off any combinable crop gross margin. As with any enterprise, yield is the main determinant of profitability, with price a close second. The break-even yield for most beet growers is around 65t/ha, which may well be the average yield this year.

A reduced beet price for 2019 may seem like an insult, when all alternative crop prices are headed north. The dilemma faced by the processor is that its margins are non-existent, given the current EU market price of around €330/t of sugar. In the run-up to its year-end results, ABF stated, ’We are confident that our retail and grocery sales will help to offset the hit to sugar profits’.

Sugar beet has to compete for its place in the rotation with other crops, mainly ones that go through a combine harvester. With cereal prices firming considerably in recent months due to 2018 global crop volumes being impacted by dry weather, sugar beet margins will have to run fast to do any catching up. At the time of writing, November 2019 wheat futures are currently sitting at around £175/t, with oilseed rape at £330/t. British Sugar is often resented for its sole-purchasing status, but ultimately the grower holds the whip-hand, in the sense that he can choose to do anything he wishes with his main production resource – land.

This spring was one of the coldest and wettest for many years, followed by a drought in June and July. Despite this, sugar beet yields may still be respectable for many, given a favourable autumn and early winter. It may be an early finish to the 2018/19 campaign, but when considering their contract options for 2019, growers should base their decisions on sound financial comparisons across the whole rotation and not look at one year in isolation.

Robin Limb

Robin Limb is a leading independent agricultural consultant

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