UK growers said they are on course to meet ambitious industry targets to double annual growth in sugar beet yields to 4 percent for 2012 to 2015 as they prepare to become more competitive by the time EU sugar quotas end.

I think we're on track, Colin Walters, agricultural development manager of British Sugar, a unit of Associated British Foods and Britain's leading sugar supplier, said on Wednesday.

Boosting yields is important to the UK beet sector because of expectations the current system of European Union sugar production quotas will eventually come to an end. The European Commission has proposed that change from 2015.

Delivering this target will prepare the UK for the challenges ahead beyond reform of the EU sugar regime in 2015, the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO), which is backed by growers and processors, said.

The organisation, which has set the yield target, conducts research to boost yields by reducing harm to beets from pests and disease.

Walters, speaking at a sugar beet research conference organised by the BBRO, said a recent strategy to deliver whole rather than partial beets to factories had increased yields in the UK, already one of the most efficient sugar producers in the European Union.

William Martin, sugar board chairman of the NFU, a growers' group, told Reuters that 4 percent a year yield growth was a tough challenge. Everyone (growers) can do better. It is a target that is doable if growers pay attention to detail.

John Hoyles, a veteran NFU sugar official and one of the architects of the growth target, said he believed UK growers should aim ultimately to raise annual sugar output to 1.5 million tonnes from around 1.1 million now.

Martin said the UK needed more time to prepare for an EU sugar framework that may have no production quotas, because the latest EU reforms led the UK industry to scale down, reducing the number of processing factories to just four.

The EU sugar reforms in 2006, which aimed to create a fairer playing field, have transformed the EU from one of the world's leading sugar exporters into a major importer.

Since then rising world sugar prices and less-than-expected growth in production by developing nations have increased the appetite of EU markets for home-grown beet sugar, Martin said.

Hoyles said UK beet growers were now set to report record beet yields, potentially in excess of 70 tonnes per hectare, from the 2011 crop.

The latest UK beet campaign took place in generally favourable, albeit dry, conditions.

(Editing by Jane Baird)