Con­di­tions for sow­ing sug­ar beet in Europe

Sow­ing sug­ar beet, also referred to as “The Queen of Field Crops”, is a demand­ing task for farm­ers. Com­pared to oth­er field crops, the require­ments for grow­ing this crop are fair­ly high. For one thing, the plants have a few obsta­cles to over­come dur­ing growth. The major fac­tors influ­enc­ing sug­ar beet sow­ing and yields are sim­i­lar to any oth­er crop: the local con­di­tions such as soil and weath­er. Suf­fi­cient rain­fall or irri­ga­tion dur­ing the main growth phase is one of the pre­req­ui­sites for a good yield. The plants them­selves are rel­a­tive­ly resis­tant to short spells of dry weath­er. How­ev­er, if they lack water for longer peri­ods, sug­ar beet plants shed their leaves and form new ones from the beet body – to the detri­ment of the yield. The seed lay­er should also be well set­tled and have a suf­fi­cient amount of fine tilth avail­able. To avoid ero­sion and silt­ing, adding a lay­er of mulch is also an option. As a result, mulch and direct seed­ing meth­ods are becom­ing increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar for sow­ing sug­ar beet. A long growth peri­od also has a pos­i­tive effect on sug­ar beet yields, so sow­ing sug­ar beet ear­ly is cru­cial. The opti­mum soil tem­per­a­ture for sow­ing is around 5 degrees Cel­sius or above. In Cen­tral Europe, we tend to get these con­di­tions from the begin­ning to the mid­dle of March. How­ev­er, the time frame for sow­ing sug­ar beet is lim­it­ed by both nat­ur­al fac­tors and the pre­ced­ing and sub­se­quent crops. A warm dry spring is there­fore the first key pre­req­ui­site for a high yield when grow­ing sug­ar beet. Anoth­er advan­tage for the grow­ing con­di­tions are warm sum­mers with suf­fi­cient rain­fall and pro­longed high tem­per­a­tures. Fur­ther fac­tors result from the long-term focus of the arable sys­tem and the short-term arable mea­sures applied such as fer­til­i­sa­tion, tillage and plant pro­tec­tion. The crop cul­ti­va­tion mea­sures can be doc­u­ment­ed auto­mat­i­cal­ly with the help of dig­i­tal solu­tions and the result­ing data can be used as a basis for deci­sion-mak­ing. Sug­ar beet is sown using pre­ci­sion seed drills with a spac­ing of 44 to 50 cen­time­tres between the rows. In order to achieve the largest pos­si­ble spac­ing between the plants, seeds can be placed in a zigzag pat­tern (delta or matrix sow­ing) using the appro­pri­ate equip­ment. Depend­ing on the ger­mi­na­tion rate and seed fur­row spac­ing, the opti­mum crop den­si­ty is around 95,000 beets per hectare. In order to man­age these types of quan­ti­ties, the logis­ti­cal con­di­tions are also crit­i­cal when grow­ing sug­ar beet. For exam­ple, con­sid­er­a­tion should be giv­en to how the plants will be processed in sug­ar fac­to­ries fur­ther down the line. In Ger­many, beet sug­ar pro­duc­tion is con­sol­i­dat­ed into three large com­pa­nies that oper­ate region­al sug­ar fac­to­ries. As such, it does not always make sense to sow sug­ar beet in just any suit­able loca­tion. This is why farm­land sit­u­at­ed over 100 kilo­me­tres from the near­est sug­ar fac­to­ry is rarely used for grow­ing sug­ar beet. This effect is slight­ly weak­ened by the fact that sug­ar beet is used in bio­gas plants to pro­duce ener­gy. The largest pro­duc­ers of sug­ar beet in Europe are France, with around 420,000 hectares in 2020, fol­lowed by Ger­many (390,000 hectares) then Poland (240,000 hectares). The yields vary depend­ing on the envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions and crop man­age­ment strat­e­gy of each farm. In Ger­many, the aver­age yield in 2019 was around 70 tonnes per hectare. In good con­di­tions, yields of over 80 tonnes per hectare are also pos­si­ble. This results in an aver­age yield of 12 tonnes of sug­ar per hectare, with records of up to 20 tonnes per hectare. In the next sec­tion, we will dis­cuss the fac­tors that influ­ence sug­ar beet yield for­ma­tion and seed drilling.

Fac­tors influ­enc­ing yield for­ma­tion in sug­ar beet

After the seeds have ger­mi­nat­ed, sug­ar beet plants form around nine foliage leaves. Dur­ing this time, the roots grow to up to two and a half metres below the ground. When the plants reach the row cov­er­ing (or crop cov­er­ing) point, this marks a key turn­ing point in the sug­ar beet growth cycle. It is defined as the point at which over 90 per­cent of plants are touch­ing or over­lap­ping the neigh­bour­ing rows. Depend­ing on the sow­ing den­si­ty and grow­ing con­di­tions of the crop, the row cov­er­ing point can be expect­ed around mid-June in Cen­tral Europe. After that, it becomes dif­fi­cult to car­ry out any mechan­i­cal or chem­i­cal plant pro­tec­tion activ­i­ties. From this point on, the first dos­es of top dress­ing can be applied. The dense canopy of leaves leads to a change in the crop’s micro­cli­mate. Although this lim­its evap­o­ra­tion from the soil, it also encour­ages the emer­gence of fun­gal infec­tions. At this stage, the beet body is in full growth mode. Thanks to breed­ing suc­cess­es over the years and good crop man­age­ment tech­niques, today’s sug­ar beets con­tain up to 20 per­cent sug­ar. In areas where it makes sense to grow sug­ar beet, the white sug­ar yield has been con­tin­u­ous­ly on the rise since the 1980s accord­ing to cal­cu­la­tions by the Insti­tute for Sug­ar Beet Research (IfZ) in Göt­tin­gen, Ger­many. The aver­age increase amounts to one to two per­cent per year. The over­all sug­ar yield for the 2020/21 har­vest year in Ger­many was 11.7 tonnes per hectare. That makes sug­ar beet the largest source of nutri­tion­al ener­gy in terms of acreage per­for­mance. Var­i­ous dig­i­tal tools that enable farm­ers to gain a bet­ter overview of crop rota­tions and cul­ti­va­tion mea­sures, and analyse their effects, are avail­able. Farm Man­age­ment Infor­ma­tion Sys­tems pro­vide soft­ware solu­tions for crop and seed plan­ning. In order to assess the qual­i­ty and yield per­for­mance of sug­ar beet, farm­ers use the adjust­ed sug­ar yield as an imput­ed vari­able. The adjust­ed sug­ar yield cal­cu­la­tion takes into account the beet yield (in tonnes per hectare), sug­ar con­tent, stan­dard fac­to­ry loss­es and stan­dard molasses loss­es. How pro­nounced these qual­i­ty fea­tures are depends on the deci­sions made dur­ing cul­ti­va­tion and the envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions dur­ing the growth phase of the plants. In the next sec­tion, we have pro­vid­ed an overview of the prod­ucts that can be made from sug­ar beet.

How sug­ar beet and its by-prod­ucts are used

The aim of direct sug­ar beet pro­cess­ing is to pro­duce white sug­ar. Liq­uid sug­ar, crys­tallised sug­ar and beet syrup are pro­duced dur­ing this process. The beets can also be used to pro­duce bioen­er­gy in the form of bio­gas. The use of sug­ar beet in bio­gas plants has increased over the past few years. In 2019, almost sev­en per­cent of the entire area used to cul­ti­vate sug­ar beet in Ger­many was used to pro­duce ener­gy. The ener­gy pro­duc­tion process also gives rise to inter­me­di­ate prod­ucts that can be used to man­u­fac­ture prod­ucts for ani­mal pro­duc­tion. The sug­ar beet leaves and by-prod­ucts from sug­ar pro­duc­tion, such as shred­ded beets, molasses and vinasse (fer­ment­ed molasses), are used as ani­mal feed. Vinasse is also used as a fer­tilis­er due to its high pro­por­tion of organ­i­cal­ly bound nitro­gen, phos­pho­rus and potas­si­um. The resid­ual sug­ar in the vinasse encour­ages straw rot­ting and has a pos­i­tive effect on microor­gan­isms in the soil. What is more, the so-called “beet soil” that clings to the sug­ar beet can be rein­tro­duced into the arable life cycle. In this case, it must be ensured that sub­stan­tial amounts of nitro­gen can be found in the soil and leach­ing into the ground­wa­ter should be avoid­ed at all costs. Over­all, sug­ar beet is a ver­sa­tile prod­uct and its cul­ti­va­tion has a pos­i­tive impact on soil. Sug­ar beet is par­tic­u­lar­ly ide­al for loos­en­ing up cere­al-heavy crop rota­tions and reduc­ing pest pres­sure in sub­se­quent years. The draw­backs of grow­ing sug­ar beet are the glob­al sug­ar price trends and the plant pro­tec­tion chal­lenges that con­tin­ue to impede prof­itabil­i­ty. As a result, the future of sug­ar beet cul­ti­va­tion in Europe is uncertain.

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