Harvesting Sugarcane

Harvesting Sugarcane

We did an article on sugarcane cultivation and touched a bit on harvesting sugarcane. In this article we shall exclusively dwell on just sugarcane harvesting alone. Sugarcane farming takes a very long span to reach maturity i.e. anything from 12 months to 18 months. If the harvesting of sugarcane is not done properly, all the prior effort can go to waste. It is with that background that sugarcane farmers should fully acquaint themselves with what sugarcane harvesting is all about. We will look at the when and how of the whole process and we shall also highlight key details to note.

When To Start Harvesting Sugarcane

We have already pointed out that sugarcane reaches maturity during periods ranging from one year to a year and six months. The maturation period varies depending on the type of season in question. Broadly there are short season and long season varieties of sugarcane. Sugarcane reaches a certain height when harvesting is imminent. The height varies from variety to variety but the broad range spans from 2 to 4 metres. The exact time of the year for harvesting sugarcane varies from region to region. There are some places where harvesting usually occurs between December and March.


There are some interesting tests one can conduct to see if sugarcane is ready for harvesting. For instance, it is said that when sugarcane is ready for harvesting it gives off a metal-like sound when the stalk is tapped. The other indication is the drying and yellowing of the leaves. Another test can be to cut a sugarcane stalk at a point that is facing direct sunlight. If the juice dries off into crystal-like veneer as it drips down the stalk then harvesting is imminent.

Weather Considerations

There are weather considerations to be made in harvesting sugarcane. It is highly advised to ensure that mature sugarcane is not hit by cold spells. This will significantly diminish their sugar content. It is upon that premise that sugarcane harvesting must be done when temperatures are anything between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius. Basically this should be when it is dry and sunny. It is also recommended that irrigation be stopped for roughly 15 days before harvesting commences.


Sugarcane Harvesting Approaches

When harvesting sugarcane two common approaches are used. One, the sugarcane is harvested whilst green or two, the sugarcane is burnt first and then harvested. The burning process seeks to get rid of two things namely, weeds and leaves. There are some people who think that burning enhances the sweetness of the sugarcane; it is not why it is burnt. Weeds and leaves can be a hindrance when harvesting sugarcane or when processing it (e.g. milling).

Harvesting sugarcane whilst it is still green has its advantages though. The leaves that will be left behind will play the role of mulch. The weeds can actually help bind the soil together to avoid erosion of soil. This is all pivotal to the well-being of the stumps you would have left for subsequent regrowth.

There are also two broad ways in which sugarcane harvesting is done. One way entails harvesting the sugarcane in such a way that it can regrow. The other way entails harvesting it in such a way that completely removes the whole crop from the field. We shall discuss more on this later on.


How Is Sugarcane Harvested

Harvesting sugarcane can be done mechanically or manually. There are mechanical machines that can harvest sugarcane just like a combine harvester would for wheat. However, it is not everyone who affords or has access to such machinery. Thus you find that most sugarcane farmers employ manual labour to actually do the harvesting.

Typically, sickles are used because the stalks have to be cut. Some can also use machetes; just as long as they are sharp. When harvesting sugarcane, cutting is done in a slanted fashion i.e. you chop the stalks at a slanted angle. It is recommended that you disinfect the cutting tools each time before using them. Again, we reiterate that it is vital that they be sharp every time they are used.

The sugarcane stalks are cut off near the ground level. The leafy tops (which are unwanted) are cut off too – this is called de-topping. How do you determine where to cut off the leafy tops? Well, you look at the part that is predominantly green and is thin. Such parts are characterised by very insignificant levels of sugar. Then the stalks are further cut into reasonably sized pieces – which are referred to as billets.

How far off the ground to cut is a function of either of two scenarios we mentioned earlier. Are you completely removing the crop from the field or you are leaving some stubs to regrow? If it is the former then cutting is done literally at ground level. Caution must be exercised to ensure the cut ends do not get riddled with soil dirt. If it is the latter the cutting is done some distance off the ground. It is recommended that you leave a stump that spans 30 centimetres. However, this can only be done for a short time – do this for at most 3 years after which you remove the crop completely from the field. Note, however, that the sweetest part of a sugarcane stalk is at the bottom so do not lose sight of that. Essentially if you cut off too off from the ground that leads to loses.


There are also safety considerations to make when harvesting sugarcane. Sugarcane stalks have sharp leaf edges and even the bark of the stalk has sharp edges. Sugarcane stalks also give off dusty particles and tiny debris. These are things that must be protected against when harvesting sugarcane. That is why it is advisable to wear protective gear that covers the whole body. We are talking about things including gloves, face masks and the like. This is of utmost importance because sharp tools will also be in use plus the harvesting process is normally done at swift paces.

Yield of Sugarcane

The yield of sugarcane varies with the sugarcane variety and the efficiency of the sugarcane cultivation. Sugarcane yield varies from 50-70 tonnes per hectare.