Recent conversations on the topic of sugarcane farming has made it apparent that the industry can be very rewarding – if you master the basics. If you know what must be done and complete tasks on schedule, sugarcane farming can be one of the easiest and most rewarding sectors to be involved in, in agriculture. Then again, if you make mistakes, it will cost you dearly.

Basics of growing sugarcane

Depending on where the farm is situated, and with rain as the only source of water, the average time before ratoons can be harvested is 18–24 months in the cooler climates and 12–14 months in warmer climates. You can expect to harvest approximately four ratoons before yield will decline. It is therefore important to divide the farm into different sections to ensure proper crop rotation.

When yields start to decline, it is in your best interest to plough out the specific section, as its profitability will continue to decline with each successive ratoon. Current best practice dictates that green crops (such as sorghum or lupins) should be planted before replanting the section with new seed cane. Exactly which green crop to plant will depend on the season in which the section is ploughed out.

When the green crop reaches maturity, a harrow can be used to till the soil (it will chop up plant material into smaller pieces). By utilising this method, the microorganisms present in the soil will start to break down the green manure. Approximately one week after harrowing the soil, the seed cane can be planted by first using a ridger to prepare the planting beds.

Consider planting dual rows instead of single rows, as this will increase the chances of a higher germination yield, which will provide a higher ton per hectare yield.

Fertiliser for the best yield

Working together with the South African Sugarcane Research Institute (SASRI) and your fertiliser distributor, the optimum amount of fertiliser necessary to reach the best yield can be determined. If possible, apply the fertiliser in two stages. The first stage will be post emergence and the second roughly one month after the application of the first. This will prevent the fertiliser from being washed away by excessive rain.

In addition, a nursery can be established to ensure that sufficient plant material is available to replant a section if needed. New sugarcane varieties can be obtained from SASRI. In certain cases, SASRI will provide homogeneous sugarcane (which has never been used on a commercial farm) for production in the nursery. The objective of this practice is to bulk up the plant material so that it can be distributed among other sugarcane farmers.

In this instance, the first crop can be cut (after 16–18 months) for seed cane and planted in a new, prepared section – this is the first stage. The section that held the homogeneous sugarcane must then be ploughed and left to rest for six months before planting the next batch of sugarcane can commence.

When the first stage’s sugarcane crop is ready to be cut, it can be replanted in other sections of the farm. As a general rule, you will find that 1ha of stage one sugarcane can be used to replant approximately 8ha if the dual row method is employed. This is the second stage and is also part of a bulking up process, which means the new variety is spread out on the farm.

When the second stage’s sugarcane is ready to be harvested, the procedure set out under the harvesting section can be followed.

Controlling weeds and pests

SASRI is able to give advice on how to manage a farm along with new sugarcane varieties that are more resistant to pathogens and pests. Also speak to your local herbicide supplier, who can assist with the design and implementation of spray programmes suitable for pre- and post-emergent weed control.

Weeds will be in direct competition with the sugarcane for the nutrients within the soil and can result in stunted early stage growth of the sugarcane if not properly managed. Growth lost in the early stages will not be recovered in later stages.

If the incorrect weed control spray programme is implemented, manual labour will most likely be needed to remove weeds from sections, which can be very costly. Any money spent on an effective spray programme will thus ensure a huge saving later during the growth process.

One of the major pests sugarcane farmers face is eldana. It is considered best practice to conduct weekly tests on your sections to determine whether eldana is present. This is performed by cutting a piece of sugarcane in half and counting the number of worms found, identifying them and then following the proper treatment plans as discussed with your pesticide distributor.

Another method of pest control (which can be gradually implemented) is the establishment of bat boxes. These boxes will attract bats that are the natural enemy of the eldana moth and will help to manage the spread of the pest. While this is not an immediate solution, it will prove of value in the long run.

Harvesting practices

The exact opening and closing times for the various sugar mills in South Africa are communicated to the farmers and may vary from year to year, depending on factors such as drought, availability of sugarcane and market demand. Normally, the mills open around April and close between October and December.

The process of harvesting sugarcane involves burning the sections you want to harvest, using either mechanical or manual means to cut and stack sugarcane, retrieving it from the sections, and loading it onto trucks at the loading site where it is then dispatched to the sugar mills.

It is important to burn only enough sugarcane for approximately two days’ worth of cutting, as its recoverable value (RV) starts to decline after 36 hours of being burnt. The percentage RV determines the price at which the sugars mills purchase the sugarcane from the farmer.

The climate of the area in which the farm is situated – warm or cool – will determine whether the trash (any organic material left over after harvesting) must be left in the sections, since sugarcane requires warm soil to grow vigorously.

In warmer climates, it is best practice to leave the trash in the sections. This way, heat is retained in the soil, which ensures strong growth and an improvement in the tons per hectare that can be expected from the next ratoon.

The key to improved growth is to prohibit ratoons from growing out of side shoots, which can easily die and do not deliver such high yields as fresh shoots, by cutting the sugarcane as low to the ground as possible.

Adding value

The only real thing that can be considered as value addition, apart from getting the basics right, is ripening the sugarcane before harvesting. This is achieved by applying a special chemical (by aeroplane) to stunt the growth of the plant, which will build up the sugars in the sugarcane itself. This ensures that a higher RV is achieved. The chemical is applied approximately 8-10 weeks before harvesting.

As the cost of drones decreases and technology improves – therefore improving the efficiency of drone spraying – we might see a move to the spraying of herbicides, fertilisers and ripeners by drone; the drift (wastage) of chemicals is much less and the running cost of drones lower than that of aeroplanes or helicopters. This could lead to the mass adoption of the ripening process in future.

General considerations

Maintaining vehicles and equipment during the off season is important, since there is enough time. You do not want key vehicles and equipment to break down during the harvesting season.

No farm can be successfully managed alone, so another essential factor is to always maintain good working relationships with staff and service providers.

Using managers

If you employ managers, it is vital to consider the value they add. Consider offering profit-sharing schemes to managers, firstly as a reward for their service and secondly as encouragement to achieve better results.

Managers (senior and junior) should know the status of the farming enterprise’s finances, as this is a way for them to measure their success. As with succession planning, a farmer must entrust every part of the enterprise to their managers to truly succeed. If they cannot be trusted with the farm’s finances, the situation must be assessed, and the necessary steps taken to rectify the matter – success thrives where there is trust.

Managing tax

There is a trend among farmers at year-end to frantically purchase goods and equipment to lower their taxable income. Do note that any money spent at year-end to purchase the following year’s production goods, will not be available to deduct from the coming year’s profits.

While you will succeed in lowering the taxable income for the first year, this must be done on a continuous basis, as the second year’s taxable income will now be much higher (as part of the production costs has been claimed as an expense for the previous year).

It would be more prudent to consult with a tax practitioner on how the tax liability can be better managed than to spend money to lower taxable income. Remember that for every R1 you spend, you are only saving R0,28 in income tax, but are still spending R0,72. For every R1 kept, you only pay R0,28 in income tax and are saving R0,72.

Long-term wealth creation

Long-term wealth creation can only be accomplished by holding onto cash for as long as possible and saving the money in accounts that generate a return while the money is not needed. If you need a production loan from the bank, aim to only make withdrawals as needed. This will minimise the amount of interest you pay on the loan. The same principle that applies to income tax also applies here. –Frans van Eden, Crown Sugar Farming

For more information, send an email to Frans van Eden at frans@prioritise.co.za. Danie van Eden, manager of Crown Sugar Farming in KwaZulu-Natal, was consulted in the writing of this article.