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Growing sugar cane

On any given day, many of us will use and consume a product we’re all familiar with – sugar. This sweet, popular commodity is made from the sugar cane plant – a tall perennial grass that grows in subtropical and tropical regions throughout the world.

Some of us use it in cooking, others have it in coffee. Food producers add it to all manner of foodstuffs on supermarket shelves for its many properties, including as a sweetener and preservative. 

Australia is one of these sugar cane growing regions, however New Zealand does not grow sugar cane due to the cooler climate. In Australia, sugar cane is farmed predominately in Queensland, with the sunshine state growing approximately 95% of Australia’s sugar cane crops. In 2019 the Australian sugar cane industry harvested 364,436 hectares of sugar cane, produced over 4 million tonnes of sugar and employed over 22,000 people. But how is sugar cane grown? How much water does it use? What are some of the by-products of growing sugar cane and how much farmland is dedicated to growing this versatile plant? 

Mills MapWhere is sugar cane grown?

Sugar cane grows best in tropical and subtropical regions. Globally, Laos, China, Brazil, India and Myanmar are some of the largest growers of sugar cane. Australia comes in at ninth on the list of global growers of sugar cane and suppliers of sugar for export in 2019. 

Australian sugar cane is grown from tropical north Queensland all the way down to northern New South Wales on the eastern seaboard. While sugar cane was grown in Western Australia in the Ord River Irrigation Area between 1995 and 2007, it is no longer a commercial crop in Australia’s most western state. Below is a map of the sugar producing regions in Australia.

Sugar cane is not grown in New Zealand as the climate does not provide the optimal growing conditions needed. New Zealand does however refine bulk raw sugar from the milling process

How is sugar cane cultivated?

Sugar cane is grown in large cane fields by replanting 40cm sections of mature stalks called ‘setts or billets’. These setts then grow shoots from joints to create a new plant. A billet planter machine is used to bury setts below the soil, typically between August and October. Fertiliser is added to help the setts form a stool of cane which generates a number of sugar cane stalks from its rootstock. 


Once the sugar cane is established, it will grow for 9-16 months (or 18-24 months in cooler climates) and reach a height of up to four meters before the crop is mechanically harvested between the months of June and December. 

The practice of Ratooning is used to produce multiple crops from one plant. During harvesting, the roots and a 3cm section of the sugar cane are left intact, giving rise to a new crop stand. This practice enables sugar cane producers to generate 4-6 crop yields from one plant, thus maximising sugar cane production and reducing the need to plant new stock for each subsequent harvest.

For more info, see our booklet Where Does Sugar Come From?

How much water is used to grow sugar cane?

Most sugar cane is grown in high-rainfall areas, which helps to provide enough water from rain for sugar cane to grow properly. If rainfall is low, sugar cane growers use irrigation to ensure the plant gets the required amounts of water to maximise crop production and yield. Many sugar producers invest in a large number of projects to optimise water usage and efficiency by reusing irrigation tailwater. 

If sugar cane is grown in suitable conditions where there is adequate sunlight and correct temperatures, it will grows in directly proportional to the amount of water used. For each 100mm of soil water the plant uses, about ten tonnes per hectare of cane can be produced. 

There’s a lot that goes into growing sugar cane. The sugar cane industry is on the forefront of technological innovation in farming practices, and utilise every part of the plant and by-products from the milling and refining stages of production. 


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