Best in Field Harvest 2022 - Sugar Beet


John Haynes of MJ & SC Collins has been credited with having the lowest cost of production for the 2022 Sugar Beet harvest, at £8.44/t. We caught up with John to learn more about this achievement and discuss future plans for the farm.  

Please tell us a bit about you and the farm.  

I'm John Haynes, farm manager for MJ & SC Collins, farming on the Harts-Essex border. Around 1100 hectares plus some contracting and we are growing cereals, winter beans, sugar beet and borage.  

Your sugar beet cost of production in 2022 was £8.44/t. Pretty impressive considering rising costs in the industry. Can you tell us a bit about how you're keeping costs down?  

What helps with keeping costs down is buying sensibly. Which is tricky as we're normally quite a heavy-handed business in terms of inputs.  We use Omex suspension fertiliser which we apply to the crop ahead of drilling with mixes tailored to individual fields/blocks. We spend time getting nutrition right on what is already fairly fertile soil, and we focus on buying our products as cheaply as possible to help keep our cost of production down. 

So, it may well be a case of actually spending a little bit extra to get that extra yield?  

Chasing the yield has been a worthwhile transaction this year and it is always important to keep grounded and not get carried away buying inputs that you don’t need.  It is all about getting the crop going as early as possible, building canopy, keeping weeds out and ensuring we keep the crop disease free.  Despite delivering our beet in P1, we sometimes put on 2 fungicides to keep the crop clean. We were very lucky this year because of the rainfall.  At the end of August/early September, we had 75 mil over the course of a weekend, and a lot of people didn't get that, and it really saved the crop. I think if we didn't get the rain then the yield on the beet may have suffered.  

Another helping factor has been looking after and investing in the soil. The soil is actually paying us back by allowing us to grow good yields and since we have been focusing on building organic matter there is a greater availability of nutrients. 

Also, getting the timings of applications right and on time really helps keep us in control and allows maximum efficacy of crop inputs. Since we moved to an 8000-litre sprayer, we don't seem to be chasing our heels throughout the spray season. We’ve had the 8000-litre sprayer 7 years now, and there haven’t been many springs where we're not parked up on perfect spray days and actually chasing the agronomist for things to do. I think the application time and timeliness is probably playing a big part in being good at what we do.   

What made you decide to add sugar beet to the rotation & what part does it play within your system?  

Sucker for punishment! So, like most other Essex based large scale arable farms, OSR had been a huge part of our rotation for a number of years. For us, we had probably grown it too tight in the rotation and built up a large population of flea beetle. Which we were controlling quite well with neonic insecticides, but I think even before the neonics were banned the pest level was building.  

The 2016 harvest was the last harvest we grew OSR. We cut a field of oilseed rape that had been decimated by flea beetle at the end of June and you couldn't push combine fast enough, it became expensive topping really. But we had thought to have one more crack at growing it and it turned out to be a very dry August. We irrigated nearly 200 hectares, and what the slugs didn't eat the flea beetle did - so that was that. We can't just sit there and whinge about it all going wrong. You've got to do something about it, but profitable and sustainable break crops are few and far between.   

That dry summer just coincided with when British Sugar needed extra growers. They relaxed their criteria required to be grower by extending their delivery radius. So, we started growing. We began with an eight or nine thousand tonne contract, and we're now at 15,000 tonnes which is working very well.  

We do have some specific conditions, including the Sugar Beet all coming out in P1 and not spreading the lifting throughout the campaign, which would destroy soil that I’ve spent a long time getting into good condition. But it’s working well. It’s about crop diversity, cultivation and chemistry. What’s also cool is seeing our British produce stacked on local supermarket shelves and being able to tell the sugar story to non-farming friends which is slightly different to the usual bread spiel.  

Sugar beet also helps with black grass control and allows us to spread our workload across the season. Moreso than the previous rotation.  

What would you say are the main challenges that you face as a beet grower? And how do you try to overcome those challenges?  

Virus Yellows is a challenge. Also, Spring droughts can be an issue. Being a spring sown crop, it needs moisture for germination, and needs a lot being a root crop. We can irrigate around 70% of our area, so that does take a sting out of that aspect and we can use water when needed to beef the crop up. Ensuring beet doesn’t get too big requires careful management so that we hit the sweet spot (no pun intended) between sugar content and root yield.  

The beet harvest is probably the biggest worry, but since we’ve started growing sugar beet, cereal drilling has become the more stressful time of year. Cereal harvest typically would be the stressful time of year, but now I’d say cereal drilling is. You’ve got crops being harvested and you must turn the ground around quickly to get a high yielding wheat crop in. It’s a vast part of our first wheat area, and we’re on heavy soils so bad weather can really disrupt us.   

Logistically it’s tricky, but we see it all as part of the ‘Rubik’s Cube’ of farming.  

And you say you lift everything early?  

Yes, we’re fortunate to have a good harvesting contractor. Their harvesting profile suits ours. They arrive and run for 24 hours to get everything lifted in good time unless conditions are difficult, or haulage is challenging; in which case they’ll leave us for a while before giving it another go. They’re really flexible, and they know what they’re doing. They enjoy working with like-minded people and getting the job done. I don’t have to worry about the quality of work with the contractor at harvest time.  Running 24hrs also means they bosh out the area quickly, meaning we can turn it around quickly and keep the drill going.  

What impact does the beet have on that following crop?  

Statistically, often our highest yielding wheat is after sugar beet. We really focus on getting the ground turnaround complete in good condition as quickly as possible. We often base our drilling around the sugar beet harvest, so we’re a bit unorthodox.   

We start off with some first wheat drilling and do a chunk of second wheat in mid/late September. If we can get a lot of drilling done before the sugar beet comes out, it reduces the workload and risk. We have to focus on efficiency since the drilling tractor can be busy getting beet ground turned around, but it all depends on harvest date. If it’s an early harvest, then we can’t do as much so it’s usually all hands on deck to get ground turned around to get the wheat in, then it’s back to the fields we delayed for black grass or for later drilling.  

It’s a resource consuming time of year but it’s good, because it’s nice to see the beet harvest flowing and beet being loaded. It’s not often you see all our machines in one field, so from that aspect, it’s pretty slick.  

We noticed from the platform that you have a couple of different varieties. How much say do you have on variety choice and what do you look for? 

There’s a range of varieties. Because we lift early, we try to push drilling day as early as possible to get the maximum number of days of sunshine.   

We base our variety choice largely around bolters. Bolters and yield performance are our biggest factors when choosing a beet variety. Some people leave their beet below the ground longer, so they’re more protected from frost, but that’s irrelevant to us as early lifters. Disease resistance plays a big part in variety selection too, but mostly bolters and yield performance. We’ve got a couple of varieties that have been going for a couple of years because they work well – and if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.  

How do you think that you could use your YAGRO platform to better inform decision making in the future?   

I think using the YAGRO platform helps with identifying trends like those we’ve been discussing today in our platform run-through. We can compare years easily. Or by being part of a virtual benchmarking group for beet growers, we could narrow down on whether we could be buying products better, and whether people are getting better yields through more spending. We know we have high fertiliser costs, for example, so we can compare that to see how necessary it is. By building up data of performances, we’re able to start diving into individual fields to see what’s working. It’s a slick way to get the most out of our fields.   

That’s great. So your plans for the future- are you doing anything different this year? Any new pieces of machinery or techniques that you’re trying out?  

Not really, to be honest. We have bought a combination drill following some wet seasons where we got caught out and weren’t able to get the wheat in behind the sugar beet. We were power-harrowing corners or cloddy parts of the field which was time and resource hungry. The combination drill does a great job of putting wheat in right behind the beet. Now the power-harrow is also focussed on making a great seedbed in the spring, which is critical as spring tine cultivators weren’t doing the job for us.  

Not rolling is something that works for us too. Often you can do more harm than good rolling sugar beet with the delicate and fragile seedlings, although we sometimes roll headlands if they’re a bit cloddy. We irrigate where we can and we’re always learning.  

We’re not just doing what we’ve always done, it’s just how our model works. We may or may not pre-em depending on the land conditions. It’s important not to sting the beet with pre-em whilst using decent chemistry to stay on top of the weeds. It’s actually a fairly standard approach that works well for us, but we do find that the timeliness of herbicide is critical – we have capacity to get spraying done in a timely fashion and not delay any applications, always conscious of temperatures for herbicides.   

Congratulations to John and the team on their impressive Sugar Beet production and being awarded the YAGRO Best in Field for Sugar Beet 2022.