Crop ripening boost for South Africa’s sugarcane farmers

A South African sugarcane farm, working with Chinese agricultural drone technology maker XAG, has completed a successful test of the XAG drone as a profitable ripening chemicals-spraying alternative to the helicopter.

Seafield Farm in KwaZulu-Natal province to the east of South Africa recently recorded a higher harvest than last year’s – after they used a drone to spray ripening chemicals over selected areas of their sugarcane crop. Ripening refers to the process of applying chemicals to enhance the sucrose content in sugarcane plants, usually done six to nine weeks before harvest. The application has been widely adopted as a routine practice to improve sugarcane quality and increase yields.

At Seafield, they normally hire a helicopter to do the spraying, the manned bird having to fly over large swathes of sugarcane to apply the ripening additive.

But this year they decided to try the XAG P20 drone.

They selected different field patches across the farm, each patch divided into two areas between one and five hectares and assigned to different ripening applications. The drone carried a custom spraying attachment and a twelve-litre smart liquid tank designed in a modular fashion. It followed the pre-set flight route, operated at a fixed height between two and three metres above the crops, spraying accurately onto its target.

Results show that the traditional manned helicopter was considerably outperformed by XAG drone in both cane yield and quality of the harvested crops.

The XAG P20 is a go for precision agriculture

“This means a lot to us,” says Kim Hein, Managing Director at HVL Drones, a distributor of the XAG drone in South Africa, who oversaw the test run at the farm. “With higher sugar extracted from every tons of sugarcane, we get paid more and our farms become more profitable.”

The areas sprayed by the drone saw a one percent increase in recoverable value for the harvested sugarcane, a significant amount if one considers the fact that since the year 2000, sugarcane farmers in South Africa are paid based on the recoverable value of their crop. Recoverable value is a measure of the amount of sugar recovered from every tonne of sugarcane crushed in the mill. The average recoverable value lies between nine and fourteen percent per tonne. Any increase in crop yield, no matter how small, will be welcomed by the farmers.

South Africa’s $833million industry – among the fifteen top sugarcane producing countries in the world – has seen its fair share of challenges of late, which have seen the country struggle to stay competitive on the markets. But with the government giving the green light for drone technology in agriculture last year, there is renewed hope among farmers to resuscitate ailing operations in sugarcane farming. Hein, the man behind the Seafield Farm ripening trial, has purchased agricultural drones from XAG to tend to his 200-hactare sugarcane field as well as those of his farming colleagues.

“Drone imagery and smart agriculture system can help us solve many environmental and labour problems,” Hein said. “Drones with precision spraying ability can address the increasing pressure to use less chemicals, while reducing labour costs. As the advantages of drone technology start to shine through, there has been a growing acceptance of drone-based treatment by sugarcane farmers, who had been experiencing difficulties managing their crop.”

The drones can operate in any terrain and their precision application allows them to be used without affecting areas of the field that are not yet ripe for ripening. Besides, the drones are especially suited for the 22,949 members of the South African Sugar Association (SASA), most of which have smaller fields ill-suited for helicopter spraying.

Hein added; “The number of tasks that can be done with drones have growing. We are now testing new applications to treat sugarcane crops at different stages in ways we could never image in the past.”

Founded in 2007 and located in Guangzhou district in Guangdong, China, XAG decided to divest from consumer drones to agricultural ones after one of its owners visited a cotton farm in Xinjiang and witnessed aging farmers strapping heavy pesticide tanks onto their backs and labour for hours to spray the chemicals over big areas covered by their crops.


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