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What Does The 2018 Sugar Beet Crop Hold?

2017: A Record Breaking Year For UK Beet

UK sugar beet growers delivered yet another record-yielding crop during the 2017/18 campaign. Despite a lack-lustre late spring, the crop bounced back big-time to exceed all expectations. Combine drivers may have had a frustrating cereal harvest weather-wise, but as far as the beet crop was concerned it enjoyed almost ‘designer’ growing conditions in 2017.

Reports of yields topping 100t/ha were commonplace, with the previous record set in 2014 comprehensively blown out of the water. Equal amounts of sunshine and rainfall during the summer, together with a mild autumn and early winter, allowed the beet crop to maximise its full potential and the confirmed final average adjusted yield was 83.4t/ha. To put this figure into context, in 1982 a record yield of 50t/ha was achieved. It took until 2005 before this number was overtaken at 60t/ha, and in 2009 the magical watershed of 70t/ha was topped – despite many saying it would never happen. In 2014, that record was broken again, at just shy of 80t/ha.

2018: Spring Crops Under Pressure

So, what’s the outlook for the 2018 sugar beet crop? With little, if any, beet drilled in March, yield prospects were already on the slide. By 15th April, a brief window of warmer, drier weather allowed those on lighter soils to make some progress, but those on more ‘bodied’ land had to wait longer before preparing a suitable seedbed. Currently, 2018 yield prospects are anyone’s guess, but we are unlikely to see many records broken this year.

You would have to go back to 2001 to find the latest average drilling date in recent years of 20th April, which at the time produced a yield of less than 50t/ha – although frost losses also compounded this. Given the Easter and early-April weather, 2018 may be on a similar track. One of the earliest drilling seasons was 1997 when that same average date was 22nd March, that produced a record crop of 1.59 million tonnes of sugar.

With a following wind, this year’s beet crop could still turn out very well – much like last year’s – but you cannot compensate for lost time with any crop that misses out on essential solar radiation during the early stages of its development.

The Future Of Beet: A Sweet Or Sour Prospect?

With quotas now gone and Brexit looming, the outlook for the UK industry remains uncertain, with storm clouds brewing on the horizon. Sugar beet margins in 2017 were far more impressive than anything that came off a combine harvester, but past results are no guarantee of future performance. Even before the UK elected to leave the European Union, market competition was already hotting up, with the prospect of unbridled production by major processors, following the abolition of quotas.

Despite British Sugar being the sole UK processor, it cannot wield market influence – especially in a post-Brexit world. Ultimately, it is the growers who hold the whip-hand in that they can choose to do anything they wish with their production resources, unlike the processor, which substantially has only one option. Relative crop profitability is currently in favour of sugar beet and may continue so. However, it would take a very brave person to stare into his crystal ball and predict what is around the corner…

Sugar is currently under attack on all fronts. The industry faces a constant barrage from single-issue pressure groups on why sugar is the main cause of obesity, and that we should all seek to reduce – if not cut out – our consumption. The fact remains that 80% of all the sugar in our diets comes from processed foods rather than by direct consumption. Consumption of sugar – in all of its forms – fell by 15% between 2001 and 2015, while obesity levels continued to rise during the same period.

The recently implemented tax on sugary drinks is unlikely to have any substantial impact on childhood obesity, given that many manufacturers had already voluntarily reduced their level of sugar usage due to consumer concerns. Below a 5% sugar inclusion rate, manufactured soft drinks are exempt from the tax.

Robin Limb Robin Limb Consulting

Our thanks to Robin for this post, 2018 will doubtless be another interesting year for beet growers.

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