Sugar cane is a relatively hardy tropical and sub-tropical crop which has been adapted to grow both in high rainfall areas and in desert conditions in which it is entirely dependent on irrigation. It typically yields 50% more sucrose per hectare than a beet crop in temperate climates.
Growing the cane efficiently has greater financial impact on the profitability of an industry than the subsequent processing.
SKIL has been involved in all aspects of growing cane since 1981, both for large corporate estates and for farmers ranging from substantial growers down to subsistence farmers with a 1 hectare planting.
There are three main factors to be considered when assessing cane production and potential:
Meteorological data can be used to calculate the cane's transpiration requirement during the crop cycle and hence to determine the periodic water balance. From this it is possible to quantify irrigation and drainage requirements. Climatic records also help assess long term risk trends such as drought or frost damage, optimise the harvesting period and predict future yields.
This work is equally valid for new developments and for existing operations such as in Ethiopia where SKIL helped optimise the cane harvest.
The topography of future cane lands dictates the ability to irrigate and drain the land correctly and also the need for special erosion protection measures.
Where existing topographic data is inadequate SKIL arranges for aerial photography to produce the photogrametric maps necessary to design sugar estates and to act as base maps for the soil survey work.
The selection of land with more favourable soil types will enhance the profit potential of a new cane sugar development. Existing or new soil surveys with associated laboratory analyses will allow land suitability maps to be produced specifically for cane.
SKIL has successfully created such maps from existing data and, when needed, has had new surveys conducted for crop planning.
SKIL has considerable cane agronomy experience in many parts of the world, a factor that helps bring a fresh approach to problems in cane agriculture.
Variety selection and development is the key to profitable sugar production. Sugar content, yield potential, expected disease resistance and ratooning capability have to be assessed as an on-going process.
Well managed nursery areas are then required to ensure a continued supply of vigorous, disease-free seed cane.
Weeds, pests and diseases all need to be controlled for best sugar production but care is needed to do so profitably. Weed control therefore involves a mixture of cultivation and herbicide application.
Monitoring and timely control of pests and diseases is essential even with resistant cane varieties. We prefer field hygiene and biological controls to the use of chemicals but this is not always possible, such as in seed cane protection.
Growing a ratoon crop costs considerably less than growing plant cane and therefore achieving high yielding ratoon cane is a valuable objective. SKIL applies this in its approach to cane agriculture.
Agricultural managers in much of the cane sugar industry struggle with limited resources, both financial and human. The necessary skilled staff are frequently just not available to them locally. SKIL provides such skills on a visiting or semi-permanent basis while helping build up the capabilities of the local staff.
Organisation and Structure
Each cane growing operation requires its own appropriate management structure. In general we prefer a decentralised approach with area managers responsible for all operations. The extent to which they are supported by function specialists depends on the intensive nature of the estate and the degree of mechanisation and irrigation.
Field Records and Cost Control
Adequate records are a prerequisite to good management. They form the basis for future planning and for controlling the costs of labour, chemicals, spares and other consumables.
Development and Training
The development of staff through parallel working is central to SKIL's philosophy but this needs supplementing with training programmes. This should be targeted for several levels of staff and might include the creation of a training centre and visits out of country. We consider the compilation of operating manuals as an integral part of training as well as being essential for good management. This has been successfully implemented in several cane industries.
NEW CANE DEVELOPMENTS
The development of new cane areas is equally applicable to existing estates and new projects. This is one aspect of cane agriculture which requires resources often beyond those normally available to the estate management.
SKIL helps manage such developments, discussing and reaching agreement with the Client on the key factors important to the circumstances:
Commencing with the land suitability maps, knowledge of the ownership and systems of land tenure are critical to land selection. Once suitable land has been identified the appropriate system of agriculture can be selected.
In areas requiring irrigation it is necessary to review the topography, the soils and the water availability before proceeding. We use field trials in such circumstances to optimise the agriculture.>
Once the land is selected and water requirements satisfied it is possible to identify the best cultivation method for each section of the development, considering the irrigation and fertiliser regimes for each soil type. This in turn allows the potential cane yields to be calculated and ratooning capability to be predicted.
The topography, distances from the mill, existing infrastructure and both capital and operating costs are taken into consideration in determining the optimum cane transport system.
Farm and Field Layouts
All of the factors discussed above influence the detailed arrangement of fields and field sizes. The design of the in-field cultural formation should take into account future trends in the mechanisation of field cultivation and harvesting methods. In particular field drains have to be formed to allow easy access for mechanical equipment.
The development of new land is expensive, takes time and must be planned to match available resources and predicted cane demand. Capital cost estimates and cash flow projections are needed to calculate the financial rates of return, whether for large scale or smallholder purposes. Early planning therefore needs to be an integral part of land developments but all the key decisions must be taken before plans are finalised.
Optimisation of a cane factory's profitability requires a clear understanding of a wide variety of disciplines. The staff of SKIL have practical experience in all aspects of factory management including line and general management :
Although some of our work is operational consultancy or staffing most is associated with refurbishment projects and new developments.
Each cane factory is unique, with its own set of process problems to solve and with a particular market to satisfy.
In the past most factories produced only a raw sugar but increasing demand for better quality sugars is changing this. Many factories are now seeking ways to improve product quality and sometimes presentation. Special attention is required when sugar has to meet the international bottling industry standards or is required for cube production. Packaging is a subject in itself.
Pressure for process change is also coming from other economic forces such as the need to improve extraction efficiency, the cost of auxiliary fuel or a desire to export power.
SKIL can assist with process improvements in many ways, often by using its computer models to optimise clarification, energy consumption and boiling schemes. We prefer a holistic approach to improving extraction efficiency because of the potential impact of improvements beyond the immediate section where they are made.
The adding of a white end to an existing factory is a typical project for SKIL. Working with the factory management we will engineer and manage the project at a minimum cost commensurate with the achievement of the required sugar quality and production.
In most factories the Engineering Manager is responsible for everything except the process house, where his role is limited to maintenance. Such an onerous range of routine duties means that he and his staff are frequently unable to engineer and manage a project in addition to the normal workload.
SKIL are able to help him manage both his routine work and his projects and have a range of engineers and technicians available to achieve this. These specialists, after years of hands-on factory work themselves, understand the particular problems of engineering in a usually remote sugar mill.
We can also help implement planned maintenance systems to reduce both unscheduled breakdowns and maintenance costs. Such a system, which involves documented data for each plant item and a pre-determined schedule of tasks, is described in more detail on a separate sheet.
Finally, as for all managers, we can help the engineering manager with training his staff.
The management of a project differs significantly from operational management. SKIL will assist the Engineering Manager run his major projects, involving: process engineering, project engineering, procurement, construction management and commissioning.
Our aim is to support but not supersede; the involvement of the permanent staff is key to the success of most such projects.
Factory profitability can be greatly enhanced by the efficient utilisation of the by-products. Much depends on the market of course but both bagasse and molasses have a wide range of uses which provide added value opportunities. Again the range of SKIL capability in this diverse subject is described separately.