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Introduction

Sugar beet is grown in the UK in conjunction with wheat, barley or pulses. It plays an important role on the farm as its host pests and diseases generally differ from those of combinable crops, meaning sugar beet helps to lessen disease and pest levels for the following year’s crop.

British Sugar works closely with around 3,400 growers who supply sugar beet to our four factories. Between September and March this sugar beet, which travels an average distance of 28 miles from growers’ farms, is delivered to our factories to be processed into 7.5 million tonnes of sugar.

Sugar beet fields create important resources for wildlife, particularly rare species of bird such as Pink-Footed Geese which feed on the remaining beet tops from harvested crop. Spring sugar beet elds also provide ground nesting sites for birds such as the Skylark which use the leaf cover as protection from predators.

1: Soil Testing & Analysis

Preparing the fields for sugar beet begins in August and September when the soil is tested to check the levels of minerals and acidity before the field is ploughed. The purpose of soil testing and analysis is to assess the levels of available nutrients for crop growth and to monitor any changes. The information collected from testing and analysis is used to ensure there is suitable nutrient content for optimum crop growth and production.

2: Base Fertiliser & Lime application

Once soil testing and analysis have been completed, the required amounts of base fertiliser and lime are applied to the field. Fertilisers help to stimulate plant growth by adding important nutrients to the soil or by replacing those removed by previous crops.

Typically the base fertiliser will consist of Phosphorus (P), Potassium (K), Sodium (Na) and Magnesium (Mg) which is applied in autumn before ploughing. Lime is applied to the field for pH correction of the soil which is particularly important as sugar beet is an acid sensitive crop.

3: Ploughing

Ploughing the fields ready for drilling usually takes place in October and November and involves the use of specialised machinery to turn over the top soil, burying all the weeds and organic matter from the previous crop.

The timing of ploughing is important and growers will plan their ploughing time based around the type of soil in the field; heavier soils tend to require earlier ploughing to break down the soil structure, whilst lighter soils are ploughed later.

4: Cultivating and Drilling

Primary cultivation is carried out in early spring to prepare the soil for drilling (sowing). Great emphasis is placed on this careful spring seedbed preparation as it helps to create the ideal conditions for germination and prevents soil compaction, ensuring the best start for the new crop.

Drilling is generally carried out in early March to mid-April but can be influenced by seasonal weather conditions. The time of drilling is essential to ensure the best possible seed emergence and establishment of sugar beet seedlings. The single-seed monogerm pellets are sown by hi-tech precision drills, thus ensuring good seed to soil contact and successful establishment.

5: Nitrogen Fertiliser

Nitrogen and any required minor nutrients are applied to the field in spring, immediately following drilling and early establishment of seedlings. Nitrogen fertiliser is applied to suit specific soil requirements and crop production techniques, but through advice to growers and a programme of sugar beet sampling, British Sugar has helped growers to cut their usage of nitrogen fertiliser on sugar beet crop by more than 30% since 1980. As a result, sugar beet now has the lowest nitrogen usage of any major crop grown in the UK.

6: Weed and Pest Control

Growers carefully monitor pests and diseases which allows for targeted pesticide applications, helping to avoid negative effects on crop yield whilst also minimising the amount of pesticides applied. Specialist herbicides may also be sprayed over the fields between April and June to help prevent weeds from growing.

7: Irrigation

Each year British Sugar survey the source and level of water our growers use to grow their crops. Currently over 95% of the sugar beet crop grown relies solely on rainwater for its growth meaning little or no irrigation is required. The water removed in the harvested roots represents just over 1% of the rainwater that falls on the crop during the growing season.

8: Leaf Disease Control

British Sugar has pioneered improvements in seed treatment technology, leading to the ‘micro application’ of pesticides to the seed and seed coating. This helps to reduce the number and level of surface applications in the field, thus reducing environmental loading. 70% of the crop grown now receives no sprayed insecticide at all.

9: Harvesting and Delivery

Harvesting and delivery (known as the campaign) beings in mid-September and continues until February or March of the following year. The crop is harvested according to factory requirements, with deliveries spread throughout the campaign to ensure the highest possible yield of sugar. As late season growth declines, the pace of harvesting increases to ensure the crop is safely gathered in before the end of the campaign, with a small percentage of the crop stored on farm in areas called clamps until it can be delivered to the factory.

Sugar beet harvesters typically cover six rows at a time and can harvest up to 1,000 tonnes of sugar beet daily. Harvesters cut off the top and leaves of the sugar beet which are used as animal feed for cattle and sheep or are ploughed back into the land as a natural fertiliser.