Saccharum officinarum L.



Common names

Sugar cane (general), shunkora (Ethiopia).


Cane to 5 m, leaves broad. Panicle large, plumelike, tapering from base to tip with silky spikelets. The sets, when planted, sends out roots to nourish the growing shoot from the node and, beneath the surface of the soil, the shoot forms a succession of very short joints; the buds of these germinate in turn to give rise to secondary shoots to form a "stool" below ground. These secondary shoots are fed by a further series of roots to produce a root mass, spreading to a depth of 30 cm or more and laterally for up to 1 m.


First domesticated in India or Southeast Asia, now cultivated extensively in tropics and subtropics throughout the world.

Altitude range

500-3 000 m.

Rainfall requirements

For economic sugar production an annual rainfall of 1 500 mm is regarded as the minimum; in lower rainfall areas, the "noble" varieties are irrigated.

Drought tolerance

It is fairly drought resistant, but production is low in drought periods.

Soil requirements

It has a wide range of soil tolerance, but drainage is essential. Heavy soils may be "bedded" to lift the soil level, and an open drainage furrow provided every five to ten rows.

Land preparation for establishment

As the crop may occupy the ground for up to four years, thorough land preparation is required. Deep ploughing and deep ripping should be carried out and the final seed-bed prepared by disc cultivators.

Sowing methods

Sugar cane is propagated by burying whole stalks in furrows, then chopping the stalks into at least two-node lengths in the furrow. It can also be planted with a chopper-planter, cutting the stalk into two-node lengths as it is fed into a planting chute. The setts are usually treated with a fungicide as they are planted.

Sowing depth and cover

The setts are planted in furrows 25 cm deep, placed 1.3-1.4 m apart, and covered lightly with soil until "tillering" (stooling) has progressed. Then the furrows are gradually filled by inter-row cultivation.

Sowing time and rate

Autumn and spring planting is common, at about 6 000-7 000 kg/ha.

Tolerance to herbicides

Herbicides are used widely to suppress weeds in sugar cane, and are dealt with fully by Tilley (1977). See Phragmites australis, Themeda quadrivalvis, Brachiaria subquadripara and Brachiaria mutica for application information.

Vigour of growth and growth rhythm

Sugar cane is a perennial. Growth is rapid in early summer, and sugar production increases in autumn, though it may decline if frosted. It matures in 12-14 months and is usually harvested then.

Response to defoliation

It is not usually grazed, the whole stalk being harvested at maturity. It will then grow again from the roots and produce a succession of ratoon crops, the number being dictated by the economics of retaining the crop. When the old "stool" is reduced by subsoil ploughing, it will give good regrowth after being shaved to ground level and fertilized.

Response to fire

Sugar cane is often burnt to ease harvesting. It is not killed, and will sucker from nodes or regrow from the "stool" afterwards.

Dry-matter and green-matter yields

At Grafton, New South Wales, cv. Pindar yielded 149 000 kg green matter per hectare, and cv. 40 SN5819 produced 129 000 kg green matter per hectare (Mead & Norman, 1950). In Brazil, Zuniga, Sykes and Gomide (1967) recorded 69 900 kg and 66 200 kg DM/ha with two cultivars.

Suitability for hay and silage

Silage has been made from sugar-cane tops in Queensland (Skerman, 1941), Argentina (Bragadin & Diaz, 1957), Puerto Rico (Vicente-Chandler et al., 1953) and Taiwan. The silage is very low in crude protein (1.4 percent of the green matter) and is fed to cattle, with concentrates, as low- quality, perennially-available roughage.

Value as a standover or deferred feed

Sugar cane can stand in the field for several years and can be used in emergency as low-quality roughage.


Numerous cultivars are bred for sugar production, disease resistance, maturity, varying soils, dry conditions and flooding. They are available in sugar- producing countries.

Optimum temperature for growth

Tillering increases with temperature up to 30°C (van Dillewijn, 1952).

Minimum temperature for growth

Stem elongation ceases at 18°C.

Frost tolerance

Sugar cane is susceptible to frost, the growing shoot and top "eyes" (buds) being the first to die, but the buds from the lower nodes may provide new growth, according to frost severity.

Latitudinal limits

30°N and S.

Response to light

Sugar cane will grow in shade, but sugar production is aimed at the greatest use of incoming radiation to promote maximum photosynthesis.

Ability to compete with weeds

Sugar-cane land has to have thorough pre- planting preparation, inter-row tillage and herbicide treatment to suppress weeds until the cane is "out of hand", when the dense shade from the canopy will control weeds.


Sugar-cane stalks are quite palatable because of the sugar content, but the high fibre makes chewing a slow process.

Response to photoperiod

It flowers in short and medium day lengths (Evans, Wardlaw & Williams, 1964).

Chemical analysis and digestibility

Where sugar cane is grown and harvested for sugar production, the tops are usually fed green, chopped for stall feeding ("chop- chop") or made into silage. Young sugar cane (two to three internodes) analysed in the Philippines showed 79.8 percent moisture, 1.8 percent crude protein, 9.6 percent crude fibre, 1.9 percent sucrose (Azman, 1951). More recently a product called "fith", consisting of de-rinded sugar-cane pith, has given excellent results in livestock feeding. Sugar cane itself provides negligible amounts of protein, and supplements are needed. Trials in the Caribbean (Donefer, James & Laurie, 1973) have shown that freshly harvested and processed sugar fith and cane tops (SF/CT) constituting 80 percent of the cattle's dry-matter ration resulted in weight gains averaging 0.9 kg per day during the traditional finishing period; additional energy supplementation from molasses or maize significantly increased gains. Dairy trials have indicated that SF/CT can constitute up to half of the total ration, replacing energy-rich feeds as well as supplying a source of succulent forage. Digestibility trials with sheep have indicated that a SF/protein supplement has a dry-matter digestibility averaging 70 percent. The authors conclude:
"Based on an average sugar-cane yield of 88 t/ha for Barbados, a projected annual live- weight gain per hectare would be 4 600 kg, with only protein/mineral supplement supplied in addition to SF/CT. An assumed world average sugar-cane yield of 50 t/ha could result in a 2 600 kg live-weight gain per hectare."
At Wollongbar, New South Wales, chopped ten-month-old sugar cane was fed as a supplement to cows grazing nitrogen-fertilized Kikuyu grass pasture (which is practically dormant during the winter). The sugar cane was very low in protein, containing only 0.62 percent in the dry matter, and in vitro digestibility was 52 percent. Milk production was 6.3 kg per cow per day of 4 percent fat-corrected milk, compared with 9.7 kg with oats and 9.6 kg with rye grass. Butterfat percentage was good at 4.9 percent in the milk produced; protein content was 3.58 percent.

Natural habitat

Tropical rain forest. Cultivated.

Tolerance to flooding

Sugar cane will tolerate short floods, but, if approaching maturity, it will become lodged and the sugar content will decline.

Fertilizer requirements

Soil tests are usually conducted in commercial sugar- growing areas to determine these needs. There is usually a basic planting mixture of complete NPK fertilizer, followed by side-dressings of nitrogen during growth. In Hawaii "crop-logging", to decide fertilizer needs after planting, is carried out by tissue-testing.

Genetics and reproduction

2n=60, 68, 80, 90 (Fedorov, 1974).

Seed production and harvesting

Seed production is controlled by ecological factors. "Arrowing" (emergence of seed-heads) usually reduces the sugar yield, so the sugar cane is generally harvested before this would occur. Cane breeders encourage it artificially for cross-breeding purposes, and pollen can be deep frozen for future use.


Sugar cane is one of the two main world sources of sugar for domestic and industrial use. Its products, such as molasses and sugar-cane tops, are available for livestock feeding and industrial use.
  • Molasses. 
The nutritive value of sugar-cane molasses based on all the sugar mills in Queensland, Australia, expressed as a percentage of the dry matter, is shown in Table 15.62. Table 15.63 shows the analyses in comparison with maize grain. Molasses is low in crude protein but supplies a lot of energy. It is also low in fibre and so has a laxative effect on cows if fed in large amounts. Protein, phosphorus, sodium and fibre should be added to molasses when feeding.
Molasses will give on average 0.7 kg of milk per kg of grain fed, and maize grain will give 1 kg. The maximum intake of molasses per cow should be 3.6 kg per day. Milk production falls sharply when more than 25 percent of the dry- matter intake is molasses, that is, more than 4 kg per day.
Molasses may be used successfully for survival feeding of cattle when roughage supplies are limited.
It is advisable to add 30 g of urea for each kilogram of molasses. As a liquid, a suitable mixture is 80 percent molasses, 17 percent water and 3 percent urea. The urea can be dissolved first in the water, which makes the molasses easier to handle. Once the molasses has been mixed in, care must be taken to avoid fermentation. Cattle should be introduced slowly to this type of mixture; 1-2 kg per head for the first week, reaching full strength by the third week. In 3.5 kg of the mix are 130 g of urea, the required daily amount.

Further reading

Donefer, James & Laurie, 1973; King, Mungomery & Hughes, 1965.

Value for erosion control

Sugar cane can be used to hold soil and act as a wind- break, but retention of small areas for this purpose would endanger disease- quarantine efforts. For erosion or wind control, should be sown in rows on the contour.

Tolerance to salinity

Sugar cane gave maximum yields at ECe 1.8 mmhos/cm, 50 percent of maximum at 10 mmhos/cm and nil at 18.7 mmhos/cm (Maas & Hoffman, 1976). In India, the varieties Co 75, Co 453, B 37172 and Co 1148 show good tolerance to salinity (Yadav, 1975).