Current: BetaSoils

Timescale: 2023 - 2026
Project Lead: Dr Georgina Barratt
Project Sponsor: BBRO

Project Summary

A multi-faceted project to investigate how to optimise practices to maximise soil health.

Main Objectives

This project would be part of the wider Betasoils research program (appendix 1) and cover the areas of tillage and harvest with projects in future years on cover crops and organic amendments to cover the timing pre beet as well as greenhouse gas emissions.

It is already evident in the SFI that soils are a priority moving forwards and will play a significant role in agricultural land management policy going forwards (DEFRA, 2022). For this reason, it is important that sugar beet systems are preserving and increasing soil health to ensure that sugar beet remains a viable option in rotations. Additionally reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a priority in wider agricultural policy, with the NFU having a net zero goal by 2040 so the impact of these practices on greenhouse gas emissions should also be assessed to ensure robust data is available for growers and to influence policy makers as the future environmental agricultural policy in the UK is debated. 

The Betasoils research program has been developed from the GreatSoils project which BBRO was a partner in. The project highlighted many different management practices and how they can improve soil health such as the enhancement of soil organic matter using organic amendments and increased earthworm numbers under reduced tillage (Griffiths et al., 2018). The project developed the use of the soil health scorecard which provides a comprehensive assessment of soil health and can be used to 

assess how management has impacts soil health. BBRO want to ensure this is used on farm going forward and part of the Betaosils projects is further evidence of the value of using the soil health scorecard.

The on farm approach of this project will also be important as BBRO is often approached by growers to capture on farm practices. Changes in tillage practices and harvest can’t be captured in small replicated plot work so this is an opportunity for BBRO to develop a robust on farm strip trial protocol. Assessing yield in strip trial is currently challenging with sugar beet as combine mapping is not an option as it is in cereals and instead 15kg hand digs are relied upon, alternative way to assess yield remotely would be a focus of the Betasoils project 4 which would be a PhD project. On farm trials may also provide an opportunity for BBRO to help growers claim R&D tax credits which would further help BBRO to support research on farm.

This work will also link with the flux tower project at Morley, the two flux tower fields are a paired field design rather than strip trials but the same data collection will take place. This will strengthen that data collected from the strip trials to produce more robust and contrasting data set with regards to crop performance but more importantly because of the flux towers GHG emissions.  This can then help the wider industry target of net zero in 2040 including provide further data for British Sugars own net zero assessments. The TMAF project captures CO2 emission and capture and the Gasmet analyser will allow data on CH4 and N2O to be captured, N2O data on different fertilizer practices would be an area that could be assessed here and could be introduced to the Betasoils strip trials another area to assess after tillage practices and harvest.

DEFRA. (2022). The SFI arable and horticultural soils standard. [Online]. Last Updated: 4th August 2022. Available at: The SFI arable and horticultural soils standard [Accessed 27 October 2022].

Griffiths, B. Hargreaves, P. Bhogal, A and Stockdale, E. (2018). Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership: Project 2: Selecting methods to measure soil health and soil biology and the development of a soil health scorecard. Final Report No. 91140002-02.

Protecting and enhancing soil health is key to the performance and resilience of agricultural systems, yet many farming practices are leading to soil degradation (Lal, 2015). Sugar beet cultivations can pose a threat to soil health as heavy tillage and ploughing are often required to get the fine tilth needed for even establishment and good growth of the storage root. In addition to this harvest is challenging because beet harvesters make many passes to lift the crop compared to wider combine harvesters, and must be emptied more frequently, resulting in lots of traffic over the soil. This can be particularly challenging due to the long harvest campaign for sugar beet resulting in crops being lifted though all of autumn and winter when conditions can become increasingly wet and soil damage more likely. This damage occurs on a range of soil types, with heavier soils most effected, however light soils have their own issues with windblow and erosion likely the biggest which can be exacerbated by row crops which leave the soil exposed or longer periods than non-row crops.

There is a need to quantify the impacts of approaches growers are using on farm to mitigate the negative aspects of sugar beet production on the soil and understand if different tillage practices in uncompromised soil provide an opportunity for additional yield improvement. Growers are already undertaking practices such as interrow cover crops, strip tillage and reduced traffic harvest systems (BBRO, 2021). In time this information can be used to identify best practice and encourage a step change in the establishment and harvest of the sugar beet crop.   

Overall, this project will bring growers and BBRO closer together to capture the impact of different sugar beet crop management practices on soil health in a realistic on farm environment.

BBRO, 2021. Sugar beet grower & business consultant Pam Jacobs, 89 (2), pp 58.

Lal, R., 2015. Restoring soil quality to mitigate soil degradation. Sustainability7(5), pp.5875-5895.

Outcomes / Key Message For Growers And Industry

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

British Sugar
National Farmers' Union