Complete: Understanding soil plant interactions to improve sugar beet productivity

Timescale: 2014 -2019
Project Lead: Dr Debbie Sparkes & Dr Jenny Bussell
Project Sponsor: University of Nottingham and BBRO

Project Summary

On average, 10% of sugar beet yield is lost to drought in the UK. In field surveys are being used to identify constraints to rooting at depth, which limits water uptake. Future work will explore ways to overcome the constraints identified. The importance of early nutrient uptake to enhance rapid canopy expansion is well understood. In this project we aim to identify rooting traits linked to enhanced nutrient uptake, and thereby yield, with the long term aim of providing a screen for use by breeders. Patchy establishment is a problem in many sugar beet fields; by surveying seed beds over a number of years we will identify the seed bed properties most important in determining emergence and develop a tool to quantify seedbed quality.

Main Objectives

A recent BBRO-funded review of sugar beet research requirements identified a number of priorities in relation to soil-plant interactions. This work will address three of those areas:

  • Evaluating and mitigating limitations to water uptake,

Water availability is the most important limitation to sugar beet yield in England with an average yield loss to drought of 10.5%. This component of the project will use X-ray CT techniques to identify constraints to water uptake by the sugar beet crop. Once those constraints have been identified, field experiments will explore strategies to mitigate those constraints, thereby increasing water availability for crop growth and increasing yield.

  • Identifying rooting traits for optimal nutrient uptake

Work in Italy has demonstrated great diversity in rooting traits within sugar beet germplasm and positive relationships between root elongation rate and root yield. This project will evaluate the diversity in rooting traits in UK and European germplasm and explore relationships between rooting traits and nutrient uptake. The aim is to develop a rapid rooting screen for nutrient uptake efficiency. Allied to this work, and informed by the root morphology associated with good nutrient uptake, will be field experiments to evaluate nutrient placement techniques. 

  • Improving establishment and early growth.

Achieving a uniform sugar beet population of 80,000 plants per hectare is required to optimise resource capture and yield. However, establishment can vary greatly from 20-90% and is difficult for growers to predict. This project will investigate soil physical properties at drilling (e.g. aggregate size, bulk density, shear vane strength, moisture content) and their relationship with emergence rate and final plant population. Through a field survey across a wide range of soil types, a model will be developed that uses soil physical properties, plus environmental information (e.g. soil texture, temperature) to predict establishment. The model will be validated across soil types and seasons before being used to develop a tool, that growers can use in-field, to predict establishment rate based on seedbed quality. The tool will facilitate grower decision making regarding the required seed rate or whether to improve establishment by, for example, waiting for temperatures to increase or carrying out additional cultivations. 

Latest Report

Previous Reports

Outcomes / Key Message For Growers And Industry

Compaction at depth has been identified in a number of sugar beet fields surveyed.  Scans of soil cores taken from fields will be analysed to visualise the impact of compaction on sugar beet root growth at depth.  A relationship has been identified between early rooting traits and nitrogen uptake in commercial varieties. The 2015 seedbed survey found a good relationship between soil physical properties and establishment.  In 2016, cultivation methods were also recorded for each field, and the relationship between cultivation methods and seedbed properties is being analysed.  Further date will be collected in 2017 to make a robust model of optimum seedbed conditions for sugar beet establishment, and cultivation techniques needed to achieve this.

This work was  further supported by PhD studies.

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We are set up jointly by British Sugar plc and the National Farmers' Union.

British Sugar
National Farmers' Union