Come rain or shine, says sugarcane grower Ryan Döhne, investing in the latest technologies to ensure optimum crop health throughout the year is a non-negotiable management strategy on the family farm outside Eston in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

Despite the external factors pressurising South Africa’s sugarcane industry, crop management investment remains a top edge priority for KwaZulu-Natal grower Ryan Döhne, who farms in partnership with his father, Nigel and his brother, Kyle.

The family has farmed in the Eston district outside Pietermaritzburg in the KZN Midlands for five generations and deliver their crop to the Illovo Sugar South Africa’s mill in Eston.

“My ancestors came out to South Africa from Germany as missionaries and settled at Stutterheim in the Eastern Cape. My great, great, great grandfather was the man who developed the Dohne Merino sheep breed. The love of the land and farming runs in our blood,” Döhne said.

Perhaps then it is that renowned German precision that has the 1 000ha sugarcane, macadamia, timber and cattle farm running like a fine-tuned, high precision engine.

“Yes, there are a lot of pressures on farmers at the moment; the sugar price is really down, the flood of cheap sugar imports into the country is a problem, labour and diesel costs are going up above inflation year-on-year, and we have the uncertainty over the land expropriation without compensation policy. Things are really a bit upside down. But we farm for today. We let tomorrow take care of itself,” he said.

Soil types range from 15% to 25% clay content on the whole and between 10% to 20% sandy soils on a nearby leased property. Current yields are at about 95 tons-a-hectare long term average, and an RV of between 13% and 14%. Ratoons are at seven and ten years with the cane harvested at 24- month cycles. The introduction of a rigorous eldana aerial spraying and progressive herbicide programmes have resulted in improved yields and cane quality, and since the end of the crippling drought, yields were now on par once more with the long-term average.

“Within the space of two to three years we have expanded our operation quite a bit. In 2015 we had about 900ha under sugarcane – we then leased a farm and added about 400ha there. Maintaining herbicide and pesticide programmes remains a top priority. So about 95% of our income at the moment is from sugarcane. Land that can’t be planted to sugar maintaining herbicide and pesticide programmes has been turned to timber and then we have a small herd of cattle – 200 Red Angus breeding cows – which we are growing.”

But it is the maintenance programme involving the herbiciding and pest control in the sugarcane that is standout, particularly as eldana infestations in the past have posed a serious threat to high yields and limited ratoons.

“My dad, brother and I meet regularly to discuss all the issues facing farming and how we were going to respond. We made a decision that we were going to take a stand. Pest and ratoon management can be one of the biggest influences in the health of our income, so we agreed, if we put aside our fertilising, herbiciding or pest control programmes to cut costs we would undermine our entire business. So yes, pest control is probably one of the biggest costs in our budget, and we do not compromise. We use the very best and up-to-date solutions on offer,” he said.

As a result, aerial spraying using a helicopter for the purposes of pest control and crop ripening has yielded hugely improved results since 2014.

“We started the aerial spraying four years ago.  I am very excited about the programme. In the beginning our strategy was to blanket spray where traces of eldana were found, but now we find we are able to spray just the particular hotspots and by using a helicopter it is possible to target those selected areas,” Döhne said.

The moths are targeted in March and April and then again in September and October. We continue with vigorous scouting, which is a key addition to any spraying, and any fields that show signs of eldana, for example bored stalks, are sprayed as well.

Helicopter pilot and aerial spray expert Roger Shone from Agricropspray said the use of helicopters for sugarcane spraying was on the increase. “Helicopters have been around for a few years, but their use has increased because they spray at a much slower speed than a fixed wing aircraft. That means they are more suitable for small areas and difficult terrain. Also, the helicopter and ground crew move from farm to farm monitoring the spraying conditions as opposed to being a few kilometres away at an airstrip.”

With a fleet of two Robinson RH44 helicopters and the introduction of the bigger Bell Jetranger for the upcoming season, Shone said the company, which represented the amalgamation of BAC Helicopters and Agri-Sense, was geared for precision agriculture. “We use the very latest technologies, such as expensive on-board computer systems to record and improve the accuracy of the spraying operation,” he said.

Fully loaded the Robinson RH44 can carry up to 230 litres and is able to spray eight hectares. Weather conditions require a wind speed of less than 15km-an-hour, a temperature of less than 28deg C with humidity at between 40% and 80%.

Döhne said working closely with Craig Schwikkard, the regional FarmAg representative, was also hugely beneficial to the programme. “What we did here was create of group of about eight like-minded farmers. We keep in touch on WhatsApp so that we know what each of us is doing in our spray programmes. The helicopters are spraying about 2 000ha in the area in total. So, when I want to spray, I just e-mail Craig my mapped areas on google earth that need to be sprayed and he liaises with the helicopter pilots, ensuring they have the right products and the right quantities. Craig is very involved and that has certainly made a huge difference,” Döhne said.

Schwikkard said his role in the herbicide and pesticide programme in the district was not only comprehensive but was geared to suit the critical needs of the growers concerned.

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