12th September 2022

Pamina winner looks to beat bcn

What began more than 60 years ago with one acre of land is now a thriving operation covering eight holdings and about 1,800 ha (4,500 acres). Bill Legge joined his father farming at Southery, near Downham Market in 1965 and has successfully expanded operations from the 100 ha farmed at that time to its present day 1,820 ha, partly through acquisition, but principally by taking on more land under various contract farming arrangements.

“In 1948 – the year I was born – my father was farming just one acre of land rented from the church, while being employed as a horseman on a local farm. In 1949 after buying a bean drill – widely used for sowing sugar beet and vegetable crops in the Fen – he was on his way to establishing his own enterprise. The business we have today, run jointly with my son Pete, owes a great deal to my father’s ambition and determination to farm in his own right.”

Today the farm grows around 330 ha of sugar beet to meet a contract tonnage entitlement of more than 20,000 tonnes. Other crops include about 400 ha of potatoes, mainly on land rented in as needed, winter wheat and oilseed rape across a geographical area spanning 40 miles and several soil types. 

The business also runs three lorries, which during the beet processing campaign run seven days a week and haul some 60,000 tonnes for a beet group consisting mainly of beet grown by their own business and a another near-by  group of contract farms.  The rest of the year the lorries are kept busy by moving other crops grown on the farm.

“The logistical challenges of farming across such a large area makes managing the farm a challenge at times, but we seek to keep things straightforward through block-cropping and a simple rotation,” Mr Legge says.

Sugar beet is a mainstay of the business and this year he will plant five varieties with newly recommended BCN resistant variety Pamina his largest single variety at roughly one third of the cropped area.  Other varieties include Cayman, SY Muse, Hayden and Springbok and Mr Legge was pleased his seed delivery was as he ordered and without variety substitution.

Outlining his priorities when selecting varieties, Mr Legge highlighted three factors which determine his final choice. Most sugar beet is grown in a rotation of one-in-four, but there are cases where, for various reasons, this falls to one-in-three.

“Yield is the principle driver of variety choice. Our soils at 20% plus organic matter tend to produce crops with low sugar levels so we also look for a variety with above-average sugar content. Bolters is another crucial consideration and is one of the reasons why we have steered away from earlier BCN varieties just as we did with the earlier Rhizomania resistant varieties,” he says.

On a pocket of land near Southery, just a short drive from British Sugar’s Wissington factory, Mr Legge reckons the crop has been grown there since the factory opened in 1925. Fortunately the effects of BCN is less dramatic on the rich black fen soils which have a high level water table, than on sandy soils farmed elsewhere.

“Breeding improvements in this area have been considerable and we pay more attention to bolter levels than we did thirty years ago. This has been crucial to maintaining performance of the crop.  This is not to say we can’t tolerate a little bit of bolting at the early drilling time, but it has to be reasonable at the normal drilling time,” he adds.

Although his sugar beet crop receives a fungicide irrespective of variety, Mr Legge believes it is important the Recommended List continues to score each variety’s disease resistance and to encourage breeders to exploit genetic resistance where possible.

“The industry has lost a significant number of herbicides and insecticides and we may well see the withdrawal of more so it is important that we maintain genetic resistance as a backstop.”

Soil sampling has revealed that BCN populations are not at extreme levels, but nor can it afford to be ignored.  Where it is an issue its impact on performance is noticeable.

“Our infestation levels vary from minimal to 8 grams per ml of soil, depending on the soil type. Although tests indicate our levels are low, BCN is a constant source of frustration to efforts to improve crop performance. We have been waiting for a BCN resistant variety with respectable yield potential, above average sugar content and reasonable tolerance to bolting for a long time and in Pamina I believe we have found one,” Mr Legge says. 

Although BCN resistant varieties have been available for several years, Mr Legge has been reluctant to drill them on all but the worst affected land because of the yield penalty compared with the best-performing conventional varieties.

“Until the introduction of better performing resistant varieties we had little choice but to extend the rotation and live with the impact on enterprise performance. This is not always practical and there is often an economic cost to the business. Hopefully, the introduction of better performing resistant types will change this,” he says.

2013-14 performance

Like many growers, Mr Legge’s crop is lifted by contractor, and it is an arrangement that has served him well over the years. “We seek to lift over about five months during which time there can be a lot happening on the farm.  Using a contractor enables us to keep up with other tasks and avoids having a large sum of capital unnecessarily tied up in a machine that would most likely be under used.”

Lifting of the 2013-14 crop was completed on 9th March with the mild winter proving to be a welcome blessing with yields boosted and lifting made easier. This year his crop has averaged around 70t/ha which, given the start to the season he regards as “quite remarkable”.

“Undoubtedly, the mild winter has helped to rescue the season. We finished lifting on 9th March, yet even in these late-lifted crops we were still recording sugar concentrations of around 18.5%. Even the beet loaded out of clamp in early March that was lifted in the first week of December still had a sugar content of 17.5-18%.”

While the mild weather is likely to have played a part in helping to keep crops growing for longer, Mr Legge believes the fact that the beet going into clamp was cleaner than in 2012-13 may also have helped to maintain sugar levels.

The mild weather however, has not helped prepare seedbeds for this season. “We haven’t recorded a single frost this winter which is why we have cloddy seedbeds, particularly on the heavier fen soils. We have had to drill a little deeper to find good tilth, but at least there is little risk of a wind blow to crops.” 

Most seasons his beet drilling team is a two-man operation, with one man working down a seedbed ahead of the 12-row drill. This year however, on the typical fen soils a third driver is needed to operate a power harrow to at “least try the smash up the clods up bit”.

With the 2014-15 crop drilled between 10th March and 2nd April, into dry and cloddy seedbeds. One or two good, well-timed rains are needed if we are to achieve good plant populations.

One note of disappointment is that he is unable to use GMO technology.  In the fens where blowing is often severe the use of cover crops is essential most seasons.  Herbicide resistance beet would he believes, be more environmentally friendly and potentially cheaper than having to remove a cover crop as well as volunteer potatoes and broadleaf and grass weeds individually. He looks forward to the day when Europe finally decides to accept GM technology. 

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