A Harvest Review
● By Robert Frey
2016 Louisiana Sugar Cane Season
By Stuart Gauthier, County Agent, St. Martin Parish | Photos by Ron Olivier
Tonnage on the Teche looks promising going into the 2016 sugarcane season. With a little luck from nature in avoiding the big “H”word, sugarcane growers should be in for a favorable grinding. However, a crop with great potential in the field is still a long way from being a teaspoon of sugar being swirled into a Cajun’s coffee cup.
A journey down the headland to the start of last year’s 2015 harvest lays the framework for the evolution of the 2016 crop. For most growers, last harvest season started out under extremely dry conditions. At the time, some planting was being delayed due to a lack of moisture and cane height was troubling short. As the cane combines roared into action the initial harvest of primarily stubble fields treated with ripener produced relatively low tonnage, but thankfully, some of the highest sugar levels recorded in quite some time. As the 2015 harvest season progressed rain crept into the forecast and sugar levels declined. Yet, relatively warm fall and winter temperatures allowed compensatory cane growth late into the season to raise tonnage levels and offset the declining sugar levels. Overall, the 2015 harvest was favorable for most growers.
As the 2015 grinding season came to a close, rainy conditions continued to flood fields and fill ditches causing concerns that the damage sustained during the wet harvest and the rutting and waterlogging of fields may have damaged the subsequent 2016 crop. At this point, it appears that these fears have been confirmed by the noticeably shorter height and thinner stands seen in some of the more poorly drained stubble fields.
However, the plant cane fields look tremendous. A general goal for many farming operations is to have 4 joints of cane by July 4th. This growing season many fields had 6 or more joints by July 4th. Finding cane tall enough to plant by the end of July 2016 was not difficult with some growers starting out the planting season with a 4 to 1 hand planting ratio.
But tall cane often comes with a price. Namely, in this case a bill for extra pesticide cost to battle issues that evolve from a winter that generated relatively little to no killing frost. Sugarcane received a great present from Mother Nature for the Christmas of 2015 when fields were treated to 80 degree temperatures at the end of December. Frost did so little damage to many fields that as growers made it into the fields in the spring of 2016 they were challenged with the age old dilemma to clip or not to clip. Many farmers hated the idea of having to start the growth cycle over by having to mow down joints of cane growth in February and March. Some clipped and some did not. In a couple cases cane regrowth quality was good enough to plant in February. All this green tissue in the spring appeared to create the perfect environment for sugarcane brown rust in susceptible varieties like 540. Which also is the variety planted on the largest amount of acreage in the state. As growers prepared to spray for rust they also began to notice the reappearance of the West Indian cane fly. This tropical fly last had an major impact on the cane belt in 2012. Normally, records mention this pest roughly every 17 years, but after just 4 years the cane fly returned in levels that warranted some growers to spray fields one or more times in an attempt to keep this pest at bay and to prevent it from depositing a sweet honey dew that turns into a photosynthesis blocking sooty mold. Fields left untreated appear in some cases to be stunted by the infestations and most acreage has been treated. Many sprays went out along with treatment for borers. Borer pressure has been an issue in some areas and the insecticide used for cane flies does have some borer reducing activity.
Ironically, assuming that a grower treats, rust issues and possibly cane flies can be positively correlated with a subsequent good crop. Although, treatment causes added expense they can signal warm winter conditions which leads to little cane freeze back the subsequent growing season.
The success of 299 on heavy ground and as a good stubbler is expanding its use in the cane belt and will soon make it the top variety planted in our state. It’s susceptibility to smut has some growers concerned as they see more and more smut whips appearing in the fields of 299. Wet weather caused herbicide efficacy to leach and wane quickly creating more weed pressure from perennial foes like bermudagrass and itch grass.
GMO issues with the sugar beet industry and the Mexican suspension agreements appear to be elevating the potential price of the price of sugar with many expecting this crop to sell in the 26 cent range. This price coupled with a good yield may enhance propects of a profitable harvest.
In summary, the 2016 crop is standing thick and tall in most plant cane fields. Stubble crop is a little weaker. With a little help from mother nature we will get this crop into the record books with an average to slightly above average yield.