Conversion to mechanical harvesting is not the major contributory factor to the reduction in cane yields
This letter is in response to that from Mr Tony Vieira published on December 5, captioned ‘The sugar industry will not recover with this board and management.’ Excluding the cane farmers, GuySuCo currently has 27% of its total area of 48,000 under cane configured for mechanical harvesting. The conversion programme is concentrated on estates that are more adversely affected by the shortage of labour, ie, Skeldon, LBI and Enmore. At Skeldon 56% of the area under cultivation is configured for mechanical harvesting; 63% at LBI and 80% at Enmore. With Uitvlugt now showing a steep decline in labour, efforts are being made to convert some of the lands on that estate for mechanization.
Prior to conversion for mechanization GuySuCo had basically three traditional layouts: English Beds, Dutch Beds and conventional Ridge & Furrow. The conversion programme undertaken by GuySuCo focused on converting English layout. This operation entails taking three English Beds approximately 10-11 metres in width and making one bed 30-33 metres in width. This converted bed (30-33 metres) is a cambered bed with a designed slope of 3.5% quite similar to that of the traditionally cambered English or Dutch Bed Mr Vieira was referring to in his letter. This operation is done using a long boom excavator to establish the slope/cambre. This kind of layout (30 metres bed) can facilitate all three methods of harvesting: fully mechanical, semi-mechanical (Bell Loading) and manual.
At the corner of the bed where soil is removed to establish the cambre, it is treated with additional Low Grade Rock Phosphate (LGRP), a soil ameliorant, to correct the possible high acidity environment created. Also, filtre mud whenever available is added to these areas to assist in replacing organic matter.
Conversion being the major contributory factor to the reduction of yields across the industry as stated by Mr Vieira in his letter is plainly wrong. Enmore which has 80% of its areas converted is experiencing higher yields than some locations which have little or no conversion. Also yields in the converted areas are comparable to those in the traditional areas. There are a number of factors that are responsible for the reduced yields over the last five years in GuySuCo, the major one being the weather. It is important to note that at Skeldon 3,947 ha of the 5,000 ha configured for mechanization were developed from flat lands (new expansion areas); only 1,053 ha were converted from the traditional layouts.
Guyana as a sugar producing nation is not singular in this respect. Decline/low yields are a major challenge to many sugar producing countries including Brazil and Australia.
Mr Vieira in his letter suggested that we should stop the conversion/mechanization programme and go back to manual (labour). At Enmore for instance, to grind for 24 hours in any one day the factory requires 24 hours @ 105 tonnes cane per hour = 2,520 tonnes of canes per day. An average cane harvester will cut & load approximately 2.4 tonnes per day. Therefore, to supply canes to Enmore to have continuous grinding 1,050 harvesters are required to work on a daily basis. Currently Enmore and LBI together have an average daily total turnout of 500 cane harvesters. Such a turnout could only supply canes for 12 hours of grinding. At Skeldon with the potential grinding rate of 300 tonnes cane per hour, the estate will require 3,000 cane harvesters to supply the factory for 24 hours. The current daily turnout of harvesters at Skeldon is averaging 510 which is equivalent to 4 hours of grinding per day.
The approach to mechanization in the industry is not to displace labour with machines. As labour availability declines machines will be introduced. The conversion process is indeed very time consuming and also expensive and cannot be done overnight. GuySuCo cannot wait to begin the process until labour becomes unavailable. Rehabilitating (re-tilling) a converted hectare costs 65% of the amount compared to re-tilling a traditional hectare.
The current fleet of machines GuySuCo has is quite adequate to supply the two factories with canes from the location where they are being used, ie, Skeldon and Enmore. Skeldon has 8 billet mechanical harvesters. These machines working 16 hours per day at 40 tonnes each per hour (8 machines @ 16 hours @ 40 tonnes) will harvest 5,120 tonnes of canes per day. The estate also has 8 bell loaders which can load 2,300 tonnes per day (8 machines @ 16 hours @ 18 tonnes). The total amount of canes harvested from the billet harvesters and bell loaders equals 7,420 tonnes of canes which is sufficient to supply canes to the factory for 24 hours at 309 tonnes cane per hour. The 510 harvesters currently turning out at Skeldon is adequate to supply the 2,300 tonnes cane that’s required by the bell loaders.
To cut 9,161 tonnes of canes per day using mechanical harvesters requires 14 harvesters and not 47 as posited by Mr Vieira.
Mr Vieira accused GuySuCo of not doing mechanical application of fertilizer and inter-row cultivation. This is totally inaccurate. Mechanical application of fertilizer is being done at Skeldon, Enmore and LBI. The industry currently has 6 mechanical fertilizer applicators and another 2 have been ordered.
An implement called the rut repair locally manufactured by GuySuCo is used to correct damage between rows caused by harvesting under wet conditions.
Canes in the mechanically harvested areas are planted 1-7 metres apart to facilitate safe trafficking of the machines during harvesting. Cane rows are not being damaged or traversed on during harvesting as suggested by Mr Vieira in his letter.
GuySuCo is also applying herbicides mechanically on conversion areas using mechanical boom sprayers.
This conversion programme does not only facilitate mechanical harvesting but a number of crop husbandry activities using machines. These include semi-mechanical planting, mechanical fertilizing, mechanical application of LGRP, mechanical application of herbicide. Doing these operations manually requires excessive labour which is definitely in short supply.