New Farming System at Belle Vue Mauricia Sugar Estate – Mechanization of all operations and the use of GPS

Tractor at Belle Vue Sugar Estate

The Republic of Mauritius is an island of 1965 Km2 situated in the Indian Ocean, which has a population of 1.3 million. The economy of the country is based on different sectors, which are: agriculture, industry and services. These sectors contribute 4%, 22% and 74% respectively to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Mauritius. According to the Mauritius Chamber of Agriculture, sugar production for the crop year 2011 would be around 390 000 tonnes. Economic indicators of statistics Mauritius show that at the end of June 2011, around 3950 hectares under sugar cane were harvested, yielding 262 151 tonnes of cane and 24 132 tonnes of sugar. The corresponding figures at the same period in 2010 were 4800 hectares, 361 875 tonnes of cane and 33 815 tonnes of sugar respectively.

The sugar industry in Mauritius has been facing several challenges due to the ACP-EU Protocol and the 39% reduction in the price of sugar. As such, this industry has had to strengthen its competitive position in the world market. The Mauritius Sugar Industry Research Institute (MSIRI) has given priority to precision farming research with an emphasis on intensified mechanization. Reduction in the cost of production by mechanizing all operations has been seen to offer opportunities for optimizing the use of resources and for the viability of this vital industry.

New Farming System at Belle Vue Mauricia Sugar Estate
In order to remain competitive, there has been a paradigm shift in the farming systems of the sugar sector. Intensified mechanization and rationalization of all resources have been the underlying principles promoting that shift. Most corporate growers are gradually introducing more efficient and productive farming practices including wider rows, dual row planting, controlled traffic, break cropping, and green cane harvesting, reduction of fuel and maintenance costs among others.
Belle Vue S.E was the first one among the sugar estates to adopt a new cropping system which led to the full mechanization of all sugar cane agricultural activities – from land preparation to harvesting. The “New Farming System” (NFS) is an an adaptation of the Australian’s ‘improved farming system’. Under the prevailing conditions, the NFS is believed to make significant difference to farming costs and provide the basis for future sustainability of the industry.

What does the New Farming System (NFS) consist of? 
The NFS consists of:

  • Planting sugar cane in dual rows on raised beds using a GPS controlled billet planter
  • Freeing the beds from stones with machines which crush stones, up to a diameter of 3 cm, inside the soil
  • Create straight soil beds of 1.9 m
  • Restrict the passage of farm machinery to well defined wheel tracks created by using GPS
  • Reduced compaction by matching cane rows with machinery wheel tracks
How does this combination of GPS with mechanization work?
As mentioned above, the NFS makes use of Precision Farming using “Global Positioning System” – GPS.
The GPS is an integration of space and ground-based segments that together comprise a radio-navigation facility. There is space-based satellite constellation in the Earth’s orbits and also ground-based, fixed base and mobile GPS receivers. The GPS utilises Ag GPS Autopilot RTK system technology to track and position agricultural equipments at real time. Nowadays, the resolution of satellite images has improved considerably. As images are now available in the range of 1-5 m, remote sensing is increasingly being used in studies of sugar cane precision farming. GIS and GPS have already become standard tools for building spatial databases and for geo-referencing fields and other spatial features.
In particular, 2.5m resolution Quickbird satellite images of Mauritius have been used to identify spatial variability ans correlations with other factors. In a natural colour composite image of the western part of Mauritius, for example, the spatial variation in the cane canopy and the correlation with soil conditions can be seen very clearly. Patches of poor cane growth and low yields were associated with water logged areas (as indicated by soil conductivity surveys), and high-yield areas, indicated by dense canopy and high biomass, were also visible on the image.

GPS in tractors at Belle Vue Sugar Estate

What are the different phase involved in the NFS?
There are 4 phases in the New Farming System at Belle Vue Mauricia Sugar Estate;
  1. Land preparation
  2. Preparation of cane setts
  3. Plantation
  4. Harvest
1. Land preparation
There are 2 main objectives for land preparation
  • Prepare a seed bed
The seed bed should be free from stones and also the cane rows must be adapted to the machines
  • Dual row plantation
Today, the most common inter-row spacings used are 1.45 and 1.62m, but this can vary between 1.20 and 1.62 m. In recent  decades, the wider spacings have been increasingly adopted because inter-rows more than 1.50 m facilitate in-field traffic of standard tractors and loading equipments with hardly any too damage. At Belle Vue Mauricia Sugar Estate, sugarcane is planted in dual rows within 0.5 m and each pair spaced at 1.9 m on raised beds.
The potential of dual row planting as a means of increasing sugar cane productivity has been demonstrated. Cane yield may be increased between 8 and 12%, depending on the variety. Dual row planting enables significant savings on weed management and improves efficiency of chopper harvesters. This is achieved without increasing inputs (planting material and fertiliser).

The sequence of operations for land preparation starts just after harvest. This includes:

a) Application of scum/fly ash mixture
Definition and description:
The vertical scum applicator used is the Jeantil TVR. It applies fly-ash and scul at the rate of 40 tonnes/ha. The tractor attached to it moves at a speed of 4 km/h. Fly-ash (30-40%) and scum (60-70%) are by-products obtained from the co-generative power plant. Fly-ash is burnt bagasse and is hard to dispose as it causes pollution. when it is mixed with scum and used by the scum applicator, it allows us to get rid of it in an eco-friendly way. Fly-ash is rich in silicate and potash and scum is a rich source of phosphate.

Fly-ash Applicator at Belle Vue Sugar Estate
  •  It must be performed before furrowing then there are no wheel tracks
  • It is done preferably before disc harrowing so that the scum and fly ash are mixed with the soil
b) Disc harrowing
Definition and description:
Disc harrowing is the first operation after application of scum and fly-ash. This operation consists of just cutting the stubbles which are on the surface of the field without uprooting or turning the soil. It is less aggressive compared to the other tillage operations. The main purpose of this operation is to mix the scum in the soil. Disc harrowing can be used in different type of soils (rocky, rooted and even muddy soil areas).

Disc harrow at Belle Vue Sugar Estate
  • To reduce the stubbles into pieces to prevent choking of the stone crusher at later stages
c) Sub-soiling
Definition and description
Sub-soiling or ripping involves tillage of the sub-soil using heavy-duty rippers attached to a tractor. The operation is usually undertaken by either a single-tooth sub-soiler or multiple-tooth types which rip the sub-soil to depths of at least 1 m. On sites with shallow soils, it should be done to a depth of not more than 60-70 cm. At Belle Vue Mauricia SE, subsoiling is done at a depth of 40 cm.

Sub-soiler at Belle Vue Sugar Estate
  • To facilitate the percolation of rain water and root penetration by ripping the subsoil of a compacted soil profile or subsoil suffering from a hard-pan formation
  • To increase the effectiveness of top-soil cultivation by ripping and improving the impermeable or heavy sub-soil, resulting in better survival and growth of the established plantation
  • To use Chisel type sub-soiler
d) Furrowing
Definition and description:
The furrower is used to prepare the land by making furrows. Furrowing is carried out at a depth of 21 cm and it is the first step that is equipped with GPS. When furrowing is done, all the data in the software of GPS. Each time the tractor is furrowing, the use of GPS guidance allows it to automatically shift by 1.9 m, thus creating parallel lines all over the field. This data is then recorded using a laptop and then put in the monitor of other implements like the bed-former. This gives the machine the ability to operate on auto-pilot mode. A tractor of 150 HP is used with the furrower, it has little pressure and thus no compaction occurs.

Furrower at Belle Vue Sugar Estate
  • Making of wheel tracks – Control traffic
  • If an even stand of cane is to be achieved, it is essential that the furrows are parallel
  • the space between the rows (inter-rows) must be such that implements can work without undue interference with the cane rows.
e) Stone Crushing
Definition and description:
The stone crusher (Blaster BPS 200) is a 3-point mounted machine which has an axial rotor with 24 hammers (12 pairs) of 1000 kg that crushes the stones inside the soil. The stone crusher is equipped with automatic greasing and the result is a bed of 1.9 m, with practically no stone of diameter greater than 3 cm. One disadvantage of the stone crusher is that if a stone is bigger than the size of a football, it will not be able to crush it. Therefore, the size of the rocks should not be too large. With this operation, the land preparation step is completed.

Stone crusher at Belle Vue Sugar Estate
  • Crush and mix all rocks/stones with the soil to a depth of 20 cm.
2. Preparation of cane setts
At this stage, the cane setts that will be planted are prepared.

Cane setts before planting
  •  Mechanical preparation of cane setts adapted for the Double Disc Opener (DDO)
3. Plantation
Plantation of the sugarcane setts that have been selected is done using the Double Disc Opener (DDO). When planting is done and the cane setts have germinated, pesticide/herbicide should be applied to the crops and it is done by using the mechanical pesticide/herbicide applicator.

a) Double Disc Opener (DDO)
Definition and description:
The DDO is used to plant the cane setts. The tractor is equipped with GPS and is positioned at the wheel track. A lorry (in which the cane setts are kept) comes behind the DDO, and the cane setts are loaded in it (as shown in the figure below). The planting is done in such a way that the cane setts, fall on the raised beds and irrigation as well as fungicide treatment of done simultaneously. Moreover, the DDO places the cane setts on the soil and the implement covers them. The depth is not deep so that the cane setts do not take a lot of time to germinate.

Double Disc Opener at Belle Vue Sugar Estate
  •  Planting 4-5 Ha of sugarcane setts per day
b) Mechanical pesticide/herbicide applicator
Definition and description:
The mechanical pesticide/herbicide applicator is a machine composed of a 600 L tank, diesel pump and 2 metal arms with spraying nozzles are attached to the 105 HP, 540 rpm tractor. Both arms of the spraying mechanism have a total length of 7.5 m. 15 nozzles are attached in total, including both arms as well as in between the two arms. All the nozzles need to be calibrated individually every time before use, depending on the speed of the tractor. The amount of herbicide/pesticide to be applied depends on the situation (if there are high pest attack or high weed problem in the area, it needs more herbicide/pesticide). Therefore, the rate of application should be adjusted every time based on the necessity. The operator of the tractor needs to retrieve the pre-recorded data using GPS navigator, put it on automatic mode, position the vehicle and then the vehicle drives itself automatically by the auto pilot system.

Pesticide/Herbicide applicator at Beelle Vue Sugar Estate
4. Harvesting
At the Belle Vue Sugar Estate, sugarcane is harvested by the Sugarcane Harvester.

Sugarcane Harvester
Definition and description:
Sugarcane harvester is a massive and sophisticated machine that is designed specially to harvest sugarcanes and is used in the New Farming System at Belle Vue S.E since 2007. 
Rotary dividers are fixed at the most front of the vehicle.  The main function of rotary divider is to separate the side rows and bringing in the sugarcanes bended out from the row that the vehicle is moving on.

Positioning of trimmers at different angles of the machine makes the harvester more efficient in its operation.  Trimmers are positioned inside both rotary dividers and trim sugarcanes from the sides.  The lower trimmer cuts the sugarcanes just above from soil surface and can be adjusted prior to the operation to any level that the operator wishes.  The top part of sugarcanes is trimmed by the trimmers located at the top. 
There are two elevators. One at the front just after the blades, called the main elevator and the other is at a side of the machine.  
The sugarcanes cut down by the lower trimmer are then chopped by the chopper drum, which is placed over the lower trimmer.  These chopped sugarcanes are then moved up by the main elevator.  At the end point of the main elevator, there is a cleaning fan.  This fan separates the chopped sugarcanes and trashes.  All the trashes moved out by a separate pathway and the cleaned, chopped sugarcanes are transferred to the cross elevator and bring out to the lorry moving along with the harvester. 
Different parts of the Sugarcane Harvester at Belle Vue Sugar Estate
Traffic of the mechanical harvester is automatically controlled by the GPS navigator during the whole harvesting operation. Sugarcane rows are pre recorded in the GPS navigator during field preparation. The operator of the harvester retrieves the pre recorded data using GPS navigator, put it in the automatic mode, positioned the vehicle and then the vehicle drives itself automatically by the autopilot system. 

The New Farming system has been adopted by Belle Vue Mauricia Sugar Estate since July 2007.  There are both advantages and disadvantages which are linked with the New Farming System. 

The advantages are:

  • Each and every operation is mechanized and no labour is required for land preparation, preparation of cane setts and planting of the setts, which has a positive effect on the cost of production.
  • Reduced cost of production for land preparation.
  • Reduction of the crop cycle (from 9 years to 6 years).
  • Increased productivity when planting sugarcane in dual rows within 0.5 m and each pair spaced at 1.9 m on raised beds.
  • Reduction of losses when harvesting by using the Sugarcane Harvester with GPS (from 5,5 – <2 t/ha).
  • The possibility of increasing the yield of some cane varieties by using the dual rows.
The disadvantages are:
  • The New Farming system requires high investment in the machineries that are needed at different stages.
  • The stone crusher cannot function normally when there are big boulders in the field.
  • When harvesting with the Sugarcane Harvester, 5 % of the yield is lost.
Finally, it can be concluded that the New Farming System has more advantages than disadvantages and it has been seen that the sugarcane yield is higher when using the New Cropping System.  The Belle Vue Mauricia Sugar Estate is confident that with this New Farming System, they will be able to remain competitive on the World Market.

About Nawsheen Hosenally

Nawsheen Hosenally, a national of the Republic of Mauritius, has over 6 years of experience in the agricultural sector, specifically focusing on the engagement of youth in agriculture through the use of ICTs. Currently, Nawsheen is the co-Founder of Agribusiness TV, a web TV that features success stories of young agricultural entrepreneurs in Africa. Nawsheen holds a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Extension from the University of Mauritius, and a Master’s degree in Management and Information Systems from the University of Manchester.

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