West Norfolk and fenland farmer wins sugar beet prize

Fenland farmer Bill Legge with his beet prize from Bram van der Have

Fenland farmer Bill Legge with his beet prize from Bram van der Have - Credit: submitted

West Norfolk sugar beet grower Bill Legge has won a growers' competition – and already drilled his prize seed.

An award-winning fenland farmer fromSouthery, he is a former winner of Farm Conservation Norfolk's annual Ian MacNicol Award in 2012.

Mr Legge, of Further Fen Farm, won 10 units of beet cyst nematode (BCN) resistant variety Pamina in a Limagrain competition.

He had to identify the BCN variety with the best combination of sugar yield potential and bolting resistance.

He farms a total of about 1,820 hectares (4,500 acres) across eight holdings in the Downham Market area and has planted five varieties of sugar beet this season across 607 ha. Almost a third of the cropped area will be sown with Pamina due to BCN infestations.

Outlining his priorities when selecting varieties, Mr Legge highlighted three factors which determine his final decision.

'Yield is the principle driver of variety choice. Our soils also tend to produce crops with low sugar levels so we look to choose a variety with an above-average sugar concentration. 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 said.

Most Read

'Breeding improvements in this area have been considerable and we now pay more attention to bolter levels than we did just five or six 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 added.

Soil sampling has revealed that BCN populations were not at extreme levels, but its impact on performance was still noticeable. On land near Southery, just a short drive from British Sugar's Wissington factory, Mr Legge reckoned that sugar beet has been grown there since the factory opened in 1925. Fortunately, the effect of BCN was less dramatic on the rich black fen soils which have a high water table than on sandy soils farmed elsewhere.

'Our infestation levels vary depending on the soil type, but 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,' said Mr Legge, who is a former champion wheat grower in Stoke Ferry Agricultural Society's competitions.

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.

Limagrain sugar beet consultant Bram van der Have describes Pamina as a well-balanced variety which matches yield potential with the desirable management attributes.

'Pamina was added to the BBRO Recommended List for 2014 and at 18.8pc has the joint highest sugar content of any variety on the list, and the highest sugar content in the BCN sector of the list. It also scores impressively for bolter resistance at both the early sown and normal sown timings.

'It's yield is equally competitive, but of most importance to those with BCN infested land will be that in two years of trials Pamina was found to be one of the best performing varieties at reducing BCN build up.'