Sugar cane farming in Brazil is a tricky tightrope of coordination, safety, and efficiency due to the scale of operations, stringent regulations, and the orchestrated chaos of machinery and people.

To keep a large sugar cane operation running, our customers may manage over 1,000 employees and more than 40,000 hectares (roughly 100,000 acres), in addition to over 20 harvesters, 40 tractors hauling harvested cane out of the field, and five or more refueling trucks driving back and forth to keep the harvesters running 24 hours a day.

And while sugar cane as a crop is known for its importance in the food industry, in Brazil it is equally — if not more so — valuable to the renewable-fuel industry as the country sharpens its focus on greenhouse gases. With roughly 80 percent of the country's auto fleet tied to flex-fuel blends, more than 50 percent of sugar cane is used for ethanol.

When compared to more widely visible crops — like corn and soybeans — sugar cane is unique as it regrows off its own stubble or remaining stalk, making it truly sustainable unto itself. This regrowth means one sugar cane plant can provide up to five years of harvest opportunity. But if the stalk is ripped from the ground, that yield potential is gone for good, which means a clean cut of the plant is critical.

Given the significant role that harvest plays in the sugar cane production system, any pain points throughout this phase have a potentially outsized impact on growers. Those challenges include high fuel-input costs, high fuel-transport costs, logistics, soil compaction, and yield impacts.

A dual exposure

In response, John Deere created the CH950 Sugar Cane Harvester.

Launched in 2021, the CH950 is the first mass-produced independent two-row sugar cane harvester in the industry. Previous models allowed for harvesting only one row of cane at a time because of the sheer weight of the crop. Average sugar cane yields are 80–100 tons per hectare, and an average one-row sugar cane harvester operates 3,000 hours per year at 40 tons per hour. By comparison, this means the volume of material processed by a one-row sugar cane harvester per season is six times more than an average corn harvester processes per harvest. By adding the second row, the volume of material a single sugar cane harvester must process per season nearly doubles.

When creating the two-row CH950, John Deere engineers addressed the challenge of increased volume with SmartClean™ system and RowAdapt™ technology. This technology allows the cane harvested from the dual rows to merge in the machine right after the plant is cut. The harvester then conveys the cane up into a narrow shaft, which enables control of the crop, allowing SmartClean to clean it more effectively. SmartClean allows for less cane loss, lower fuel consumption, and reduced trash within the crop.

While nearly doubling the intake of crop is an impressive and welcome outcome, the impact of the CH950 goes way beyond productivity.

An illustration of John Deere equipment tending a sugar cane field

Previous single-row models meant a six-foot-wide harvester had to work in a five-foot-wide row spacing. The challenges associated with this mismatch were multiple.

"It created soil compaction issues as growers traveled over the same row spacings multiple times, and it also damaged root beds and caused poor cutting of the crop," said Jesse Lopez, global sugar cane business manager at John Deere.

A pile of sugar cane stalks

The width of the previous machine form often meant the harvester's tracks rode up along the plant's root structure and would lift the stalk out of the ground when cutting the plant. This often hindered the plant's chance for regrowth. The rebalanced CH950's wider base aligns the harvester's tracks directly in the center of the rows, allowing for a 60-percent reduction in soil compaction as the machine only travels certain row spacings once and other row spacings not at all.

The CH950 also increases the likelihood the typical five-year growth cycle for the plant can be extended to seven or even eight years. By extending the replanting cycle, there are benefits beyond increased yields; this also delivers savings in input costs like seed and fuel, which also reduces the overall environmental impact of the production cycle. "There are so many benefits," Lopez added.

"When you look at the savings over that typical five-year cycle, it is really meaningful. Adding one more year to the cycle could mean up to an additional 20 percent in reduced costs and a positive impact on sustainability."

Stacked on top of these benefits is an immense fuel savings and logistics benefit associated with the CH950. By nearly doubling the productivity of each machine, the CH950 has improved fuel efficiency by up to 17 percent.

An added wrinkle in Brazil are regulations that prohibit refueling in the field after dark, a pain point for sugar cane growers as previous models of harvesters required refueling twice every 24 hours. The CH950 solves this problem with both increased fuel efficiency and fuel-tank size. This new machine can be refueled once per 24 hours, which means the challenge of timing the last refueling during daylight hours is reduced, and the overall number of trips to the field for refueling is cut by 25 percent, delivering a significant fuel and greenhouse gas emissions savings for the operation.

A misty sugar cane field

This impressive increase in productivity of a single machine reduces the number of harvesters needed to do the same job by a staggering 50 percent. For our model-farm operation, this means 11 machines instead of 22. The extra row also means up to 27-percent fewer tractors are needed to move the cane from the harvest wagon to the transport trucks. And fewer machines in the field means a reduction in the number of operators of approximately 35 percent.

Felipe Dias, product manager for sugar cane, said it's about being able to do more with less.

"We will be able to produce the same amount of sugar
and the same amount of ethanol with less resources," he said.
"That is the definition of sustainability."

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