Riekert Van Heerden

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Riekert Van Heerden (Pr.Sci.Nat.)

Manager: Crop Performance and Management Programme
Senior Scientist: Sugarcane Physiologist
(Plant and Environment Research Centre)

M.Sc. – Plant Physiology (Stellenbosch)
Ph.D. – Plant Physiology (Potchefstroom)

Email: Riekert.VanHeerden@sugar.org.za
Tel: +27 (0)31-5087439 


As programme manager, I am responsible for the coordination and management of research within the Crop Performance and Management Research Programme at SASRI.  In this role I am involved in the development of the annual programme of work through encouraging focus, innovation and collaboration in research. As senior scientist, my role is to initiate and conduct research leading to best management practices for sugarcane cultivation in South Africa.

A key outcome of my research is to promote the responsible use of chemical ripeners in the sugar industry. Chemical ripeners enhance the sucrose content of sugarcane during certain parts of the milling season. My research conducted under statistically-designed experimental conditions, but also on a much larger commercial scale in collaboration with sugarcane farmers, has shown that increases in sucrose yields of up to 3 tons per hectare can be achieved with chemical ripeners. Success stories, and advice on the use of ripeners, are often shared with farmers at information events and in the form of popular articles, which drives the ongoing adoption of this important crop management practice.

My contribution to crop productivity in the South African sugar industry was recently acknowledged when I received the 2011 Agriculturist of the Year (KwaZulu-Natal) Award from Agricultural Writers SA. I am currently also a National Research Foundation (NRF)-rated scientist.


Physiological and biochemical basis of abiotic stress tolerance in plants and the effects of abiotic stress on growth and photosynthesis.

An array of in vivo and in vitro methodologies ranging from rapid non-intrusive chlorophyll a fluorescence to detailed biochemical analyses.

Research Interests

Use of chemical ripeners to accelerate sucrose accumulation  – dosages, variety response, timing of application, modeling of ripener processes etc.

Reducing the incidence of lodging in sugarcane through manipulation of stalk and root development.

Improvement of resource (light, water etc.) use efficiency in sugarcane.

Use of chlorophyll fluorescence rise kinetics as a rapid non-intrusive screening tool to probe abiotic and biotic stress responses in sugarcane.

Key Outcomes

Ensuring the responsible use of chemical ripeners in the South African sugar industry.

Conversion of peer-reviewed research findings to best management practices for profitable and sustainable sugarcane production in South Africa.

Key Publications(2008 - 2015)

van Heerden PDR, Kiddle G, Pellny TK, Mokwala PW, Jordaan A, Strauss AJ, de Beer M, Schlüter U, Kunert KJ & Foyer CH (2008). Regulation of respiration and the oxygen diffusion barrier in soybean protect symbiotic nitrogen fixation from chilling-induced inhibition and shoots from premature senescence. Plant Physiology 148, 316-327.

van Heerden PDR, Donaldson RA, Watt DA & Singels A (2010). Biomass accumulation in sugarcane - unravelling the factors underpinning reduced growth phenomena. Journal of Experimental Botany 61, 2877-2887.

Lopes MS, Araus JL, van Heerden PDR & Foyer CH (2011). Enhancing drought tolerance in C4 crops. Journal of Experimental Botany 62: 3135-3153.

van Heerden PDR (2014). Evaluation of Trinexapac-ethyl (Moddus®) as a new chemical ripener for the South African sugarcane industry. Sugar Tech 16(3): 295-299.

van Heerden PDR (2014). Differential acclimation capacity to frost in sugarcane varieties grown under field conditions. Plant Growth Regulation 72: 181 – 187.

van Heerden PDR, Singels A, Paraskevopoulos A & Rossler R (2015). Negative effects of lodging on irrigated sugarcane productivity – an experimental and crop modelling assessment. Field Crops Research 180: 135-142.


van Heerden PDR, Mbatha TP & Ngxaliwe S (2015). Chemical ripening of sugarcane with trinexapac-ethyl (Moddus®) – Mode of action and comparative efficacy. Field Crops Research 181: 69-75.
Last updated: 27/07/2015