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Benchmarking sugarcane harvesting performance to improve profitability and efficiency: The importance of social research to improve the probability of project relevance and success

Lisa McDonald1, Jeff Coutts2 and Dale Chapple3

1 CSR Ltd, Email
Coutts J & R/Pod Media, Email
BSES Ltd. Email


Benchmarking performance has been seen as a way to identify where efficiencies can be achieved in the milling and growing sectors of the Australian sugar industry. However, benchmarking hasn’t been used to improve the performance of sugarcane harvesting operations. Harvesting operation owners have identified that they could use benchmarking to identify opportunities for improvement, as well as allow them to asses the effects of adoption of recommended best practices on their operational and economic performance. To meet this need, a harvesting benchmarking system is being developed in the Burdekin region of north Queensland using GPS tracking technology.

Three key learnings: (1) Involvement of end-users from the inception of the project and framing the data collection around addressing the issues of end-users was an important driver in developing the methods used and the type of information that needed to be collected. (2) Using a process that allows the eventual end-users of the project outputs to drive the direction of the project has meant that they have a strong buy-in to the project itself and are committed to making it successful. (3) Including social research as an integral part of the project has highlighted issues that could significantly affect the success of the project and allowed the project team to redesign the approach taken for the next harvest season.

Key Words

Benchmarking, social attitudes, sugarcane harvesting


The sugar industry is a complex system; players include farmers, harvesters and millers and all are reliant on each other. Harvesting is generally not done by farmers but by contractors. Harvesting is affected by a set of constraints that arise due to the complexity of the overall system. The contractors must work with the mill transport system as well as the farmer. They must operate within a set of rules that ensure all the farmers have their cane harvested in equal proportions throughout the harvest season.

Harvesting practices can have a significant impact on losses of cane during harvesting and on the regrowth of the following ratoon crop, but the practices that need to be adopted to minimise the negative impacts of harvesting often impose additional costs on the operation. Balancing these factors make improving harvesting operations difficult in many ways.

A group of harvester owners in the Burdekin region in northern Queensland identified the need to gain more information to improve their performance. They identified that by benchmarking against each other, they may learn ways to improve performance – so initiated the project described in this paper in collaboration with CSR Ltd and BSES Ltd. Early on the project group decided that the key success factor for the project was to collect the most appropriate and relevant information to develop meaningful indices that could be used for benchmarking. The group also identified that a range of information (described below) needed to be collected to provide relevant comparisons on harvesting group performance.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology that has been available in the trucking industry for some time is now being used by harvesters to track their machines (Crossley and Dines, 2004). The data collected by these devices can be used to calculate indices such as field efficiency (the ratio between the amount of time spent harvesting and the total amount of time spent that day) and tonnes of cane harvested per engine operating hour. These indices can be used to compare operational efficiencies between different cane harvesters.

There are a number of factors that can impact on operational efficiency which are not easily modified by the harvester. These include the layout of farmers’ paddocks (short rows mean more turns per hectare and decrease field efficiency), the distance cane trucks have to cart cane to unload it onto the rail system and crop yields. The group identified the need to develop a benchmarking system that could take into account all of these factors.

During discussions about the project, it became clear that there are complex social dynamics associated with harvesting, and these could impact on how the benchmarking system the groups was developing may or may not be adopted. The group decided that we needed to examine the attitudes of all players to the technology and the idea of benchmarking as well as understanding the potential social implications of adoption of the technology.

This paper outlines a project that looks at itself, through social research, as the project team works to develop a useful and robust benchmarking system to improve harvesting operations. The information presented in this paper on the attitudes and expectations of those involved in the harvesting system are being used by the project team to design strategies for the coming 2006 harvest season.

Study Methods

Seven harvesting groups are involved in the project. A harvester group consists of a harvester, haulout trucks which transport cane to an unloading point, backup support such as mechanics and workshops and the group of farmers whose cane will be harvested.

Project genesis and management

The group of researchers and harvester owners involved in the benchmarking project have been meeting to discuss harvesting issues for 2 years. They identified the need for a benchmarking system and now attend regular meetings to determine the direction of the project and to review the results. The benchmarking criteria are being developed specifically to address a number of specific questions the project group want answered. The harvester groups involved in the pilot project include those owned by individual farmers, contractors and cooperatives.

Both qualitative and quantitative data collection are being collected for the project.

GPS data collection

GPS tracking equipment has been used previously in the sugar industry to measure harvester performance. For this project we purchased similar technology to that used by Crossley and Dines (2004) to fit a harvester and a haulout vehicle in each of the seven harvest groups. The units fitted were dats 3022 GPS data loggers manufactured by Mobile Tracking and Data Pty Ltd (MTData). Sensors fitted to the elevator and engine on each harvester. These record when these components are operating as well as tracking the position of the harvester. Each harvester was also fitted with a 5060 dats mobile data terminal, also manufactured by MTData. The data terminal has a touch screen programmed to allow harvester drivers to enter data during the day in an electronic log book. The mobile data terminal was connected to the GPS data logger so that every entry on daily activities could be linked to the harvester’s geographical position.

Data on harvester groups

Details were collected about each harvester group. These included including group size (ha harvested per year), make, model and age of all machinery in the group, labour details and daily rosters.

Data on cane billet quality

Sugarcane stalks are cut into billets during harvesting. Billets are usually between 20 to 30 cm in length. The quality of billets is assessed by the uniformity of size and the condition of the cut ends - split into 3 categories; sound, damaged and mutilated. The overall quality of the billet sample is characterised by the percentage of sound, damaged and mutilated billets and the billet length distribution.

Stool damage assessment

Harvesters cut cane at ground level using base cutters. If the harvester is travelling too fast or if the base cutter blades are blunt, the cane stool will be damaged and this can affect the yield of the following ratoon crop. The level of damage to stools is assessed by cleaning off the stool and noting the condition of the cut stalks in a similar fashion to the billet quality assessment

Social research

The social part of the she study was designed to understand the perceptions, attitudes, expectations and issues of those involved directly and indirectly with the project at the commencement of the project. The overall purpose was to explore the following elements:

  • Why people do – or don't – adopt best harvesting practice;
  • What impact the information generated on harvesting operations has on learning;
  • Attitudes, decisions and practice of harvester groups;
  • How exposure to the information impacts on the openness of harvester groups to innovativeness and evaluating their own decisions;
  • Perceived benefits of the technology/information to the users;
  • Attitudes, interest and impact on growers’ services by harvester groups; and
  • Attitudes, interest and impact on drivers and milling staff.

This part of the study was undertaken over the period between May – October 2005. Data were collected in the following ways:

  • Group Meetings: harvester owners involved in the pilot project were asked a series of questions about their reasons for being involved and what benefits they hoped to derive and the issues that they saw arising from the project. A mid-season workshop was held just prior to the equipment being fitted to explain details and discuss issues. Notes were taken at the meeting recording areas of interest, concern or issues arising.
  • Interviews: A range of people involved in the project and other stakeholders (including the employees of the harvest groups, mill staff working with harvester groups and farmers being serviced by harvester groups) were interviewed face-to-face using semi-structured surveys. These interviews sought the perceptions, expectations, issues and concerns about the project.

Rigour was established by having the group and individual interviewees validate the summaries of data collected and by looking at the same issues through the eyes of different individuals. Each farm participating in the project is a separate case study and the use of multiple case studies further adds rigour to the research process. Care was taken to ensure that individuals could not be identified through presented information.

Analysis was undertaken using standard qualitative analysis techniques in line with grounded theory principles (Strauss & Corbin 1998; Patton 2002)). Collated information from individual and group interviews and observations was systematically analysed for emerging themes and relationships. Through this process common themes emerged across case study participants allowing theory to be developed and tentative conclusions to be drawn.

Results to date

GPS tracking data

The GPS data loggers on harvesters and haulouts are being logged for their position in the field along with readings from the sensors fitted to the elevator and engine. These data will be used to interpret the activity of each harvester, e.g. time spent cutting, stopped and turning, at all times of the day. Figure 1 is an example of a map showing harvester and haulout movements over a day’s operation.

Figure 1: MapInfo output showing harvester and haulout tracks during one day, overlaid on a paddock layer

Billet sampling

A number of billet samples are being collected and these have already provided a strong benchmark for assessing the quality of the harvesting job. Billet quality for one group was shown to be markedly different when samples were compared before chopper blades were changed and after they were changed. We also noted a significant difference in billet quality between the harvest groups. Further analysis of damaged and sound billets has shown that the quality of billets has a significant effect on sucrose content, with sound billets having higher sucrose content than damaged ones. These data have provided a graphic comparative measure for assessing the quality of the harvesting job.

Bringing all the ‘hard’ data together

All ‘hard’ data will be combined into a central database. The harvester owners involved in the project and the project team have identified a number of specific issues to be addressed by the data. The next step is to develop appropriate indices to enable the groups to compare their performance. Software is being developed that will generate the indices and the benchmarking reports. The project group (harvesters and researchers) will review the report early in 2006 and recommend necessary modifications for the 2006 harvest season.

Findings from the social research

Issues and questions that should be explored in the project

From early meetings there were a number issues harvest managers were interested in;

1. Labour efficiency

2. Cost of different harvesting practices on farm productivity and effect of different farming systems on harvesting

3. Effect of different sugarcane varieties on harvesting costs and ratooning

4. Impact of different cutting at different times of the day on cane quality, operational efficiency and costs

5. Impact of different weather conditions on cane quality, operational efficiency and costs

6. Impact of harvesting practices on cane quality

7. Impact of harvesting practice on ratoon ability.

8. Estimation of true costs of harvesting

9. Impact of the structure of harvesting rounds on costs and operational efficiency

10. Effects of siding locations on costs

11. Effect of farm layout on harvesting efficiency

12. Impact of machine age on quality job and repairs and maintenance costs

13. Economics of harvesting green versus burnt cane

14. Costs of one-way cutting in cane fields

15. Potential impacts of shift harvesting on costs and efficiencies and social attitudes

The harvester managers in the project were also interested in using the data collected to examine some possible ways (scenarios) they might modify their operations. For example, some harvest groups were interested to determine what the optimal amount of cane they should harvest annually was. They were also interested in the effect on overall profitability of harvesting high and low cost block and cross subsidisation. Some wanted to determine what the optimal number haulouts for their group was.

Views of members in harvesting co-operatives

Members of harvesting cooperatives involved in the project have shares according to the tonnage of cane grown – although voting is based on one vote per member. Most make decisions on consensus rather than voting – although examples of being 'outvoted' on some decisions were provided (including involvement in this project with the additional costs involved).

The project’s aims are to develop a harvest benchmarking system to highlight opportunities for harvesters to improve their performance. However, the GPS technology installed on the harvesters can be modified to provide a yield map during harvesting. As the reasons for participating in project and the expected benefits expressed by all stakeholders in the project suggest, farmers and harvesters are equally interested in the potential of the technology to provide access to precision agriculture practices

Views of harvester group on the projects

The reasons given by Harvester Group representatives for their interest in being a part of the project were as follows (in order of frequency):

  • Opportunity to benchmark costs across farms within the group as well as against other harvesting groups
  • Ability to examine different options (for example economics of trucks versus in-field transporters)
  • Improving harvesting performance generally
  • Yield monitoring - for precision agriculture (fertiliser placement etc) [note 4 farms have purchased extra equipment intended to monitor yield during harvest]
  • Showing up inefficiencies with rail siding placements and bin supply
  • Monitoring the activities of harvester drivers – whether they were operating according to instructions
  • Ability to look at impact of changes made to harvesting equipment or management.
  • Monitoring billet quality – scope to reward/penalize individual rather than area
  • Gauging the value of investing in GPS systems
  • Looking at ways to improve farm layouts
  • Determining the order of cutting farms could be arranged to maximize overall benefit

Views of farmers on the project

Most farmers were positive about the project and there was a high expectation that the technology would assist with yield mapping and precision farming. Specifically, reasons that were given for their interest in the project were (in order of mention/weight):

• The ability of the technology to provide yield mapping – to allow better decisions about fertilizer, lime etc.

• Providing data to show problems with siding distribution and bin management

• Monitoring of harvester speed and its effect on ratoon crop yields

• Providing a fairer basis for charging for harvesting and information to assist in negotiations with contractors

• Environmental benefits – reduced nutrient run-off with precision farming

• Showing up ways to make harvesting more efficient – for example, where to put culverts.

• Improving the efficiency of harvesting such as reducing amount of time waiting for cane bins

Views of mill staff on the project

Mill staff saw the benefits of the GPS technology as providing information to compare the efficiency of operations including such things as;

  • Differences in harvesting efficiency between blocks and identifying ways to improve farm layout;
  • Improving transport efficiency (for example sharing of sidings or identifying the need to build new sidings);
  • Identify factors that impact on the whole operation such as the effect of short rows;
  • Identify where groups are disadvantaged by long haul distances and crop conditions;
  • Identify reasons why there were differences in the efficiency of harvesting between farms and harvester groups; and
  • Identifying the optimum number of harvesting rounds.

The collection of billet samples (part of the project) was seen as a way of providing information on feedback on the optimum time to change blades on the harvesters to minimize damage. Another advantage to the mill staff is that the mill will be able to see what is happening on farms without the need for so many mill visits, the GPS technology was seen as being able to save their time.

Concerns about outcomes of the project

The main concern of the farmers interviewed was the potential for individual farmers to be disadvantaged if they are shown to be more costly to harvest. Differential charging out for harvesting services was also an issue for harvesters. This was summed up by one harvester owner, who asked the question; “do we charge a group member more…who we like and respect…just because they are further from a siding?”

One harvesting group saw that improved analysis and recording through the equipment could lead to confidence in treating the farms within the cooperative as “one large farm” for the mutual benefit of all.

Owners of the harvesting groups were concerned that the project may have unwanted outcomes. One group was worried about getting a ‘tainted’ reputation if people were to associate their involvement in the trial with any future move to bring in 2-shift harvesting.

Concern was expressed that the benchmarking study could show up differences in costs between cooperative and contact harvesting, putting pressure on contractors to reduce price. Linked to this was the concern that the project might not include all of the costs in running a cooperative harvesting business and therefore underestimate the true cost of harvesting.

Labour shortages were an increasing concern for harvest group owners. Most harvester owners commented that harvester and haul-out drivers were increasingly becoming hard to get. One grower pointed out that he had never seen so many adverts for drivers during a season. A major factor was seen to be the better pay and conditions for drivers in the mines in north Queensland.

Harvester and haulout drivers were worried about the ‘Big Brother’ threat of GPS tracking. The main concern was being forced to operate at 7km/hour because stools are thought to be prone to damage at “too high” harvesting speeds. Drivers are paid for the tonnes they cut rather than time. These comments clearly highlight the obvious tension between harvester owner’s desires, and the rewards for harvester and haulout drivers.

This is exacerbated by the length of time many harvester crews work. They often worked 7 out of 8 days, from 4 am to 6 pm. A number pointed out the negative impacts on their social and family lives and a number indicated that they would not be signing on for another season. In addition, drivers were still required to undertake maintenance duties before knocking off. With all the workload and the feeling of being watched, there was a feeling by some that they weren’t trusted and that their experience wasn’t appreciated.

Of particular concern for this project was that a number of drivers provided feedback on limitations to the touch screen recording pad and suggested they weren’t using it properly and they were unaware of the purpose behind the GPS equipment and what their role was in the whole project. In one case the GPS unit fitted to a haul-out was considered “a nuisance because it beeped a lot…and we tried to disconnect it”.


Some of the major themes and implications emerging from an early assessment of project progress are listed below.


While we have finally got most of the technology in place – we have had significant delays and malfunctions. This has set the project back. The lesson here is that relatively new technology or new applications of technology are never as straightforward as imagined.


1. There are high expectations of the output/outcomes from the project. There is a need to manage expectations through continual review and communication about potential outcomes.

2. Benchmarking is the major benefit expected from the project by group representatives – results hold potential concerns for some. There is a need to ensure benchmarked information is put in context and sensitively handled within and between harvester groups.

3. Growers look to yield monitoring and precision farming

There is a need to clarify the potential of the technology for yield monitoring and ensure growers have realistic expectations.

4. Drivers are concerned about the ‘big brother’ issue in relation to speed monitoring and the potential for longer hours. There is a need for increased communication with drivers in terms of understanding the project and the technology and in dealing positively with concerns held. Their reactions to the project probably have and could continue to affect the quality and accuracy of the data being collected.


Crossley. R and Dines. G. 2004 Integrating harvester GPS tracking data with a spatial harvest recording system. Proceedings of Australian Society of Sugar Cane Technology Abstracts 2004 pp 15.

Patton M Q (2002) Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods (2nd ed) Newbury Park, CA: Sage

Straus A L & Corbin J (1998) Basics of Qualitative Research : Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques (2nd ed) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

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