Cane harvesting is conducted when the sugar concentration reaches its highest rates. In the West Indies, that period runs from January to late June, about 12 to 18 months after planting. The harvesting time follows the sugar cane blossom in December.
Cane fields are often set on fire before harvesting, especially for hand harvested fields. The fire helps to get rid of cane leaves and weeds and kills any snakes, avoiding snake bites to cutters.
Since sugar is concentrated at the stem lower sections, canes are cut at ground level because the sugar. Stem top and leaves are immediately removed. Hand harvested canes are loaded on a cart in one piece. Mechanical harvesters cut the cane at the stalk base, remove leaves and cut it into pieces of usually 20cm long. Mechanical harvest tends to be faster (typically 100 tons per hour, or the equivalent of about 200 workers). The downside of mechanical harvest, is that no every field can be harvested that way (e.g. slopes being too steep, or insufficient road/tracks to the field). Cane rods are also more fragile and sugar tend to get altered more rapidly. Hence fields located too far away from factories have to be manually harvested. The mechanical harvesting tools being quite expensive, it tends to be used more widely in countries with medium to high labor costs.
Cane harvest, mid 19th century - Rhums et eaux de vie de canne D Kervegant - 1946