At The Morley Agricultural Foundation (TMAF) Winter meeting we shared plenty of food for thought about the practical and financial challenges of growing sugar beet in 2019 and beyond.
Facing up to the loss of neonicitinoids
Now that farmers are facing a scenario of growing sugar beet without neonicotinoid seed treatment, we invited BBRO Head of Science Dr Mark Stevens – who has thirty years’ experience of working on aphids and Virus Yellows, the crippling crop disease they carry – for his perspective on the options.
Dr Stevens began with a reminder of the impact that Virus Yellows can have. “Our BBRO trial work here at Morley has confirmed that without prevention up to 42% of yield potential of your sugar beet can be lost from this problem”. On using alternative chemistry to control aphids his warning was clear. “There is no point using pyrethroids and carbamates as 90% of aphids are resistant. You will only kill beneficials, the aphids will survive and make Virus Yellows worse down the line.”
How to be armed against aphids in 2019
The first piece of advice is to limit on-farm sources of over-wintered aphids. “Storage heaps with sprouting beet should be destroyed. Farm hygiene is business critical”, Dr Stevens explained. “Aphids don’t survive as eggs but as adults due to our maritime climate – on wheat, OSR and even cover crops. A mild winter exacerbates the problem. Here at Morley, on our BBRO trials we were catching winged Myzus persicae in December. That doesn’t normally happen.”
Secondly, it’s essential to watch the aphid forecasts from increase surveillance. Samples of aphids trapped in the yellow water pan network (only 3 of the 600 aphids found in the UK present problem for sugar beet) received at the lab at BBRO will be analysed by Dr Stevens or his colleague Suzannah Cobb. “Using our state-of-the-art diagnostics, we share the results with you through the BBRO Technical Bulletin and online so can you can react. When the threshold is reached you can put on one application of Teppeki that will give three weeks of protection.”
Looking to the longer term, the TMAF Winter meeting heard Dr Stevens describe how work in the BBRO laboratory and growth rooms is looking at novel insecticides and other opportunities for aphid control. “We want to understand more about ‘mature plant resistance’: after the twelve leaf stage we see that sugar beet makes life difficult for aphids. It produces a phenolic compound which in effect starves the aphids. Could we, through breeding, introduce that trait earlier in the seedling’s life?”.
The success of neonicitinoid seed treatment has, it could be said, stifled innovation in breeding. With the ban the race to find alternatives is on. For example, BBRO is now generating virus-carrying aphids to speed up the development of tolerant varieties by breeders. That’s for future. For 2019 we need the weather on our side. “Cold is the best insecticide”, concluded Dr Stevens, “We need more -6°C temperatures like we had last night to protect our 2019 crop!”
Crunching the costs of growing sugar beet and without neonicitinoids
Continuing with the cold theme, we heard a chilling analysis of the financial realities of growing sugar beet in 2019 from the second speaker at our TMAF winter meeting.
Farm business consultant Jamie Gwatkin manages the Bury Beet Group and the Cantley Beet group and is also the benchmarking consultant to the Joint Venture Farming Group. Drawing on data from these sources, combined with the Farm Business Survey and DEFRA statistics, he assesses that average costs of production for sugar beet are over £1411/ha.
“With beet yield average of 78.5 t/ha, your investment for every tonne is £17.98, very close to the value of £20.42/t (one year contract) or £22/t (three year contract).”, he explained. “Add in the cost of mitigation of Virus Yellows by one application of Teppiki (product and application costs £27.63/ha) then, even at precisely the right threshold to keep yield loss down, the margin gets even tighter.” He pointed out that if a grower does not successfully control Virus Yellows they could suffer a yield loss of 25%. If there was additional loss of perhaps 9% to a pest such as Leaf Miner then growers even of significant tonnage would make no money from sugar beet at at all. “The ban of neonicitinoids, I predict, will have a significant impact on sugar beet crop. It will be made even more risky to a farmer who only gets moderate or low control of aphids and Virus Yellows, as costs of production will exceed the contract price. This is what could make sugar beet in the UK unviable. It’s pretty bleak isn’t it?”
TMAF – providing evidence for decision-making
Also at our Winter Meeting we had our AGM in which we agreed to continue hosting research by BBRO and NIAB, sponsoring PhD students and investing in other significant work. “Our role is as important as ever”, concluded TMAF Chair John Wallace, “we have to keep looking at ideas and opportunities out there and to help researchers and others to find solutions to the farming challenges we face, this year and every year thereafter”.
If you would like to attend one of the next TMAF meetings then get in touch.