Yields have increased 5-8 percent, equipment efficiency has improved by 33 percent, and more of each acre is growing sugar cane each year. Brent Rivet‘s gamble is raking in the benefits of bucking 200 years of sugar cane producing tradition.

In 2014, the 4th generation Rosedale, La., sugar cane grower started transitioning his family’s 6,000 acres — which he farms with his brother, Clint, and father, Glynn — from standard 6-foot spaced beds to 8-foot beds planted with paired rows.

His equipment dealer introduced him to the idea. He had seen it done in Brazil and reported that harvest equipment was being manufactured to accommodate the new sizes of this emerging practice.

“I met a grower from Texas doing it on a few hundred acres and reporting good numbers for yield and efficiency. We’re always looking for ways to do more with less, so we decided to give it a try,” Rivet says.

Gaining the expected efficiencies didn’t come easy. The Rivets had to invest in new harvest equipment and modifications for existing equipment, from cultivators to a 30-plus-year-old seed harvester.

As sugar cane is a perennial crop only rotated out every 3rd or 4th year, they had the additional challenge of maintaining equipment for farming both 6- and 8-foot beds during the transition.

“We were going to try the 8-foot beds on just a portion of our acres, but once you start adjusting equipment back and forth it’s too much work to do it both ways, so we went all in,” Rivet says.

The halfway point of the transition was the worst, he says. They were continually reworking or switching equipment as they moved from field to field. But once they committed, it didn’t take long for the investment to pay.

Brent Rivet is now experimenting with planting the entire width of his sugar cane beds. So far the Rivets have seen benefits for planting crooked seed cane damaged by hurricanes and are encouraged by early high stalk counts.

Maximum use. So how exactly does wider bed spacing result in greater efficiencies? It comes down to the math. The 8-foot beds have 40-inch planting surfaces compared to just 20-inches with 6-foot beds. This allows for planting two rows of sugar cane on each bed — a practice that hasn’t worked on 6-foot beds.

The planting space per acre is increased, but the number of rows is decreased, resulting in less tillage. Equipment was extended from 30-foot wide to 40-foot wide to accommodate the new beds.

“With fewer rows and wider equipment, we’re turning 25% less. We’re working the same hours but cutting 50,000 more tons per year,” Rivet says. He also notes wider rows make for easier harvesting in muddy conditions.

Despite going wider with his cultivation equipment, he didn’t have to increase horsepower because the same amount of iron is in the ground, just at different spacing. This did make his equipment too wide for the road.

“We had to buy an implement transport trailer, but that makes us a lot safer and just as fast when moving fields,” Rivet says. “We’re all in one lane now and don’t have to pull over all the time to let cars pass us on the highway.”

Beyond the equipment efficiency, Herman Waguespack Jr., director of research for the American Sugar Cane League, notes the importance of the increased production.

“We’re facing urban and industrial encroachment which means we’re not really getting any extra land available to us,” Waguespack says. “With this system, Rivet has more surface area planted, but fewer rows to manage.”

Spreading out. Excited by the results so far, the Rivets are pushing the system into uncharted territory. In fall 2018 they planted the entire tops of the beds, taking the 4 stalks commonly planted in each row and spreading the 8 total stalks across the entire surface, keeping the same seeding rate.

“Hurricanes often blow down our seed cane, making a crooked cane for planting,” he explains. “When we open the whole bed, we can plant a seed cane that looks like a pretzel and still easily cover it.” In a double row, crooked cane would likely be poking out of the soil and unlikely to produce.

Early high stalk counts have Rivet encouraged that full-bed planting will prove out.

Researchers are keeping a close eye on Rivet and others. “Farmers have gotten far out in front of us, and this method is evolving very quickly,” Waguespack says of 8-foot rows. The practicing farmers are in the minority now but are bravely paving the way for a more efficient and productive future for sugar cane.

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