From The Field
09/08/2017 07:00AM ● Published by Robert Frey
Gallery: 2017 Sugar Cane Progress Report [3 Images] Click any image to expand.
2017 Sugar Cane Progress Report
By Stuart Gauthier – St. Martin Parish County Agent | Photos by Ron Olivier
The 2017 crop did not start out under the best of circumstances. The August flood in the fall of 2016 drowned early plantings and standing cane with over 30 inches of rain. As the waters receded growers went back into the field and continued planting, all the while realizing that they would have to wait until the next spring to determine the full extent of the flood damage to the plant cane already in the ground. Flooded fields transitioned quickly to workable ground as a dry conditions lingered through most of the planting season and harvest season. In fact, conditions became so dry that some growers actually resorted to irrigating newly planted cane.
During this time, mills briefly delayed the start of grinding to give growers hindered by the flood time to finish planting. When grinding finally started, dry field conditions accelerated the progress made by growers throughout the harvest season. Field damage was minimal as equipment ran through fields without rutting or damaging stubble fields. Even though the cane height was excellent, tonnage remained light for most growers. Luckily, the dry sunny weather provided excellent conditions for ample sucrose production allowing extremely high sugar levels to develop. However, growers questioned the unexpected lack of weight per acre and many theories were circulated. Some blamed the West Indian Cane Flies epidemic experienced around the Teche, but some fields sprayed multiple times for cane flies or with low cane fly levels still seemed to have light cane. Others pointed toward fertility issues with nitrogen leaching and losses being the culprit. In the end, many ascribed to the fact that the rainy spring and summer possibly impacted tillering and cloud cover reduced photosynthesis allowing the cane to stretch without ever getting heavy enough to lodge. Overall, a decent price, a dry less expensive harvest, relatively low fuel prices and an early end to the harvest season left growers hopeful going into the 2017 season.
After grinding was over, Acadiana experienced two very cold days in the mid 20’s. This freeze was enough to drive out the West Indian Cane Flies and turn cane fields into a brown dormant state less suitable for brown rust development. As spring growth commenced growers seemed to have favorable conditions that allowed fields to be clipped, sprayed and fertilized. Cane growth and tillering appear on track with many optimistically reporting a strong stubble crop and in some case a little less favorable plant cane crop still reeling from either flood or drought conditions experienced early on in the crop cycle.
Over the course of its long history, the sugarcane industry has evolved and changed to survive. One recent notable change is the shift in varieties that periodically takes place. The strong stubbling ability of 299 on black land and heavy ground is one of the reasons why in 2016, 299 displaced the long dominant 540 as the major variety grown by Louisiana growers. Acreage of 299 continues to expand as this heavy stubbling, relatively rust and sugarcane bore resistant cane becomes the dominant variety in the fields in our area.
Another new innovation is the 8-foot cane row. Although the 8-foot row acreage remains below 1percent of the total cane acreage in Louisiana, some local growers have decided to convert to this wider row system. The advantages of this system appear to be higher yields and a better fit to the width of the combine harvestor, thereby, less damage to the sides of the rows. The wider rows end up creating 20 percent less row feet per acre, less turns and possibly less fuel use per acre. The main drawbacks include the expense of the conversion of equipment to the 8-foot system and the additional cane it takes to plant this double-drilled system. However, if cane yields on the 8-foot rows continue to be high we may see more wide rows in our area.
Take a car ride westward into Vermilion Parish along Hwy 14 and Northward into St. Landry Parish; it is impressive to see how much land is being converted from rice and grain into cane. This conversion will expand this planting season as low commodity prices have growers eager to find an alternative crop.
From floods to drought, the 2017 crop faced adversity from the beginning. Despite these challenges, a tall straight, dense crop is waiting in the fields for harvest. Hopefully, this crop will offer a little more tonnage, and decent weather will prevail to make this a better than average crop.