Sugar beet research refines the sweet spot


Vicky Foster, Head of BBROSugar beet is grown in East Anglia and East Midlands and is used as an ingredient in foods, beverages and pharmaceuticals with co-products used for animal feed and bioenergy. Yields have increased by 25 per cent over the last ten years and this has been achieved with the invaluable support of the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO), a levy organisation that implements and commissions research specifically for the UK sugar beet industry.

Vicky Foster has recently joined as Head of BBRO and she brings a wealth of expertise from her previous role at AHDB. We caught up with her and asked her a few questions about her new role and plans for BBRO.

Q. You have recently been appointed Head of BBRO, but before this you were Head of Research & Knowledge Exchange Programme Management at AHDB – what attracted you to BBRO?

VF. I have a real passion for science; translating this new knowledge so it delivers valuable information on farm and makes a real difference to growers is what drives me. The opportunity to lead the BBRO at this key time for the industry is very exciting.

During my time with the AHDB I saw many changes, particularly in the way the knowledge exchange programme developed to incorporate a wide range of different mediums and a much more targeted approach, and also how partnerships and collaborations with other organisations can be nurtured to deliver better value for levy payers.

I believe the BBRO is a leading player in the industry but there areas where there is scope to further improve the service it can offer and I am keen to be part of that and to contribute to an organisation that is valued and has a positive impact.

Sugar beet seedsQ. Sugar beet is the only UK crop that has seen yield improvement year on year. Can you give some examples of how BBRO has helped the industry achieve this?

VF. The significant investment made by the BBRO into the Recommended List has been key to yield improvements. This is a jointly funded activity with the British Society of Plant Breeders and aims to test the genetic potential of new varieties under a range of different UK conditions. Whilst the trials do not necessarily follow on-farm practice, their purpose is to push the system to see what can be achieved. Although investment in breeding programmes and new varieties is vital in delivering increased UK sugar beet yields, this is only part of the picture, without the underpinning agronomy and new knowledge that BBRO has delivered in this area we would not be where we are today.

Research into crop protection and crop nutrition, testing new products and technologies, and a better understanding of crop physiology have all played a key role. For example, in the last couple of years we have also been focussing on minimising losses through a better understanding of damage that occurs during harvesting and storage, an area, which hasn’t had as much attention as it merits.

Sugar beetQ. BBRO has recently introduced a new approach to field trials to allow closer engagement with farmers – please can you explain this and how it is going?

VF. The BBRO demonstration farms is a new concept that is just entering its second year. The main objective of these sites is to be able to demonstrate some of our research and new technology on a real farm situation and encourage growers to understand more about benchmarking and yield potential. They are not designed to provide huge replicated field trials but to provide smaller robust experiments and a platform for engagement with growers and to allow us to have a ‘look and see’ at some new proof of concept principles in a low risk and cost effective way. We have one demonstration farm in each sugar factory area giving us contact points across the main beet growing areas. It is well known that peer to peer learning is some of the best and we believe that by getting closer to the growers in this way we can help facilitate that.

Q BBRO is sponsoring the Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show – what will you be showing?

VF. Innovation is key to a successful future and innovation in how we farm and produce our food must be at the top of the list. BBRO is very pleased to be sponsoring the Innovation Hub again to demonstrate to the general public and other industries how British agriculture is leading the way. We will be demonstrating our new electronic beet that is helping us to better understand some of the stresses on the beet during harvest. We can put the electronic beet through the harvester, follow its progress and collect real time data. From this we can identify the key pressure points, information which can be fed back to the manufacturers for future development or used to refine machine settings in the field to reduce damage. Looking forward is there something that you see as really exciting for the industry?

I believe we are entering really exciting times with our ability to link improved crop modelling and forecasting with new technologies, with this we will be in a better position to provide bespoke information that can be used at an individual farm level.

More information about the Innovation Hub at Royal Norfolk Show (27-28 June 2018).

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