Unlocking Sugarcane Cultivation Potential: How Agriculture Drone Empower South African Smallholder Farmers





Sugar cane, scientifically known as Saccharum officinarum, is believed to have originated in New Guinea. The introduction of sugar cane to South Africa can be traced back to the mid-19th century when Edmund Morewood, a British settler, first planted it in the region on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast in 1848. The first shipment of KwaZulu-Natal sugar was sent to the Cape in 1853, marking the beginning of commercial sugar production in South Africa. By the end of the 19th century, the Natal Sugar Industry had become an essential part of the South African economy.


In modern times, South Africa produces approximately 19.9 million tons of sugar cane annually, with most of it coming from the KwaZulu-Natal region. The industry has also expanded into other areas such as the Pongola valley near the borders of Eswatini and Mozambique. Today, sugar cane is one of the country's most significant crops, contributing substantially to its agricultural sector and playing a crucial role in rural development and job creation.





Chemical Ripeners:


Chemical ripeners, also known as growth regulators, are substances that accelerate the maturation process of sugarcane to increase its sucrose content. The use of these chemicals has become a standard practice in many sugarcane-producing regions worldwide, as they can significantly improve both the quality and yield of the crop, including estimated recoverable crystal (ERC).


When applied to sugarcane plants, these ripeners disrupt normal growth patterns, diverting more energy towards sugar production and less towards vegetative growth. This results in a higher concentration of sucrose in each stalk, thereby increasing the overall yield when harvest time comes. Chemical ripening is essential for profitable sugarcane production in South Africa. Extensive trials conducted with commercial farmers have proven the economic benefits of chemical ripening (van Heerden et al. 2015; van Heerden 2019; van Heerden and Ramusandiwa 2021).


However, the use of chemical ripeners is not without potential downsides. The excessive use of these chemicals can lead to environmental pollution, affecting soil health and potentially contaminating water sources. There's also the risk of these chemicals impacting non-target organisms in the surrounding ecosystem. From a human perspective, there could be potential health risks for those who come into direct contact with these chemicals. Therefore, it’s essential that chemical ripeners are used safely, correctly, and responsibly.




Smallholder Farmers (SHF) in South Africa


While large-scale farmers can rely on conventional chemical ripening methods, the same cannot be said for smallholder farmers (SHFs).


Smallholder farmers in South Africa, typically cultivate less than 2 hectares of land and face numerous challenges including limited access to credit and market opportunities. Key bottlenecks include a lack of agricultural training and technology, poor infrastructure, and difficulties in obtaining finance for investment in farm improvements. However, SHFs also have significant potential to drive rural development and food security if these constraints can be overcome.


Traditionally, smallholder farmers in South Africa have been unable to take advantage of chemical ripening, unlike large commercial farmers. This is largely due to the unique nature of smallholder farming, which involves small sugarcane fields scattered across different locations. These fields are often surrounded by natural vegetation or used for other purposes, making it difficult for conventional aerial crop spraying to meet the ripening needs of these farmers.





Investigating the Viability of DJI Agriculture Drones for Smallholder Farmers


The development and increased availability of crop spraying drones has created exciting opportunities for these farmers. Drones are able to effectively operate in small, fragmented fields, which was previously a challenge for aerial spraying.


To investigate the viability of crop spraying drones for SHFs, van Heerding, et al. in collaboration with the South African Sugarcane Research Institute (SASRI), the University of Pretoria Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, and DJI Agriculture dealer PACSys, conducted a series of trainings and experiments. Their work involved researchers, extension specialists, and farmers working together to implement cane-quality management, crop-spraying drones. Together, they conducted participatory demonstration trials in different communities to assess the potential increase in estimated recoverable crystal (ERC) as a result of chemical ripening. Through this process, they identified challenges and opportunities for scaling up the implementation of these technologies.


To learn about the methods and techniques used in their research, you can find the full paper here.




Success for Smallholder Farms with Precision Crop Spraying Drones


Across the experiments, 15 SHFs successfully conducted drone ripening trials at 11 different locations, including both rainfed and irrigated production systems. Spraying was completed with either a DJI Agras T20 or T30 drone.


In comparison with controls, the ripener treatment resulted in increased ERC% in all trials. Although the ripener treatment generally had lower cane yield compared to the control treatment due to fluazifop-p-butyl's growth restriction effect, the increase in ERC% outweighed this, leading to a yield increase of 0.21 – 1.78 t/ha. In other words, the drone intervention resulted in higher sugar yields.


These findings are supported by previous research and trials with commercial farmers. To cover the cost of drone application for the ripener treatment, an increase in ERC yield of approximately 0.12 t/ha is needed, considering the current ERC payment price in South Africa and the typical application cost.





A Bright Future with Lots of Work Ahead


Across the 15 drone ripening trials across various locations within the SHF sector, ripening benefits, such as increased ERC yields, varied from 0.21 to 1.78 t/ha.


In their interactions with the SHFs, van Heerden et al. learned about some challenges SHFs anticipated in the widespread implementation of crop spraying drones, despite their clear efficacy.


Currently, SHFs have limited access to these technologies due to a shortage of spraying contractors, the remote and fragmented nature of the SHF sector, and a lack of coordinated harvest planning. It's difficult for spraying contractors to plan and budget for operations in SHF communities when they don't know the exact spray areas and field locations ahead of time.


Another potential obstacle to wider implementation is convincing harvest and transport contractors to accept the need for more precise harvest scheduling and minimal delays in processing for chemically ripened crops. As farmers bear the economic risks of chemical ripening, it's important to increase awareness among harvest and transport contractors about the overall benefits of ripening.


Case study source:

PACSys Precision Agricultural Systems

Email: sales@pacsys.co.za

Phone: +27 32 330 5009

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