01/26/2018 07:00AM ● Published by Robert Frey
Gallery: 2017 Sugarcane Harvest Review [11 Images] Click any image to expand.
2017 Sugarcane Harvest ReviewBy Stuart Gauthier, County Agent, St. Martin Parish | Photos by Ron Olivier
With about one-third of the sugarcane crop still left to harvest (at time of press) the 2017 sugarcane crop has the potential to go down as the largest in Louisiana history. A rare blend of high tonnage and high sugar are blessing growers with yields that may surpass the previous record 2012 season that went down in Louisiana Ag record books by averaging 37 tons per acre and producing a total of 8,412 pounds of sugar per acre.
How do growers account for this good fortune? What alignment of the moon, stars and planets came together to produce this mega crop? It all started with a dry 2016 harvest that didn’t rut fields and sparred stubble from being damaged. A mild winter with just enough cold weather to knock back brown rust and cane flies allowed the crop to get off to a good start. For the most part, timely spring rains didn’t interfere with fertilizer and herbicide applications. Even though moisture was plentiful through most of the growing season the cane seemed to tiller well and stalks grew heavy. Sugarcane borer levels were relatively low and the cane crop narrowly avoided hurricanes that veered into Texas and Florida that would have likely flattened fields and yields.
When the mill started grinding around September 20, growers were impressed by the early production figures coming from older stubble that initially produced both good tonnage and sugar. This was in stark contrast to the previous year’s crop in 2016 that had a pleasing record sugar level of 246 pounds but a disappointing low tonnage figure in the 31.5-ton per acre range.
In St. Martin Parish, the relatively dry harvest conditions and erect cane have allowed growers to harvest more of the crop with traditional whole stalk harvestors. It is a belief among some growers that whole stalk harvest costs are cheaper than combine expenses. This approach has made solider harvestors and transloaders a relatively common site during the 2017 harvest season.
Another trend in St. Martin Parish in 2017 is the growth of cane acreage harvested by a mill harvest group. Some producers feel that the charges for the custom harvest of their crop is at or below their cost. Letting the mill take care of harvest drastically reduces labor and liability issues. Some of these arrangements have the grower’s crop taken out in 1/3 increments, which allows the farmer ample time to fix headlands and plow out stubble during idle periods.
All cane varieties seem to be performing well this harvest season. However, L-01-299 continues to be the star player. 299 is a team member that may not set plant cane record yields, but down the stretch stubble yields into 3, 4 and in some cases 5 or more years don’t disappoint. It is rare to find a variety able to perform at such a high level for such a long period of time on both light and heavy ground. One fear is that growers will repeat the missteps from the 1990s made with LCP 85-384 – a similarly successful variety. During its 10-year run, record yields on old stubble had growers planting and keeping 384 on up to 85 percent of planted acres. Unfortunately, when disease resistance to brown rust started breaking down in 384 many growers struggled to replant their acreage in alternative varieties. The success of 299 at this point appears to have it on track to account for over half of the acres in St. Martin Parish.
So, as growers head down the home stretch, farmers pray that south Louisiana continues to avoid a heavy freezes that might derail efforts to get this crop into the record books. Mills seem to be on pace to close in January. With some operators expecting to grind cane into the mid to latter part of the cruelest month. A price in the 26-cent range per pound of sugar is comparable to last year, but the higher yields seemed destined to make sugar the most profitable agricultural crop in our area. The economic potential of sugarcane will continue to attract new growers that are struggling with grain crops to the north and west to find a home in the sugar industry.