When Cane Freezes Over
● Published by Robert Frey
2018 Sugar Cane Progress ReportBy Stuart Gauthier – St. Martin Parish County Agent | Photos by Ron Olivier
For many growers, last year’s cane crop was memorable. Timely rains throughout the growing season facilitated growth and produced an abundant crop. A sweet combination of ample tonnage and high sugar blessed growers with a record sugar yield of 8,862 pounds per acre with a state wide total gross value of nearly one billion dollars. The 2017 crop shattered the previous record set by the 2012 crop by over 450 pounds of sugar per acre. The average price for the 2017 crop was estimate to be 26 cents per pound.
However, the 2017 season was not without its scares. A January freeze left growers scampering to finish harvest and wondering if their 2018 stubble would return. Many growers’ memories returned to the freeze of 1989 that forced replanting of the majority of the sugar cane crop.
In 1989 there were several hard freezers. On Christmas Eve there were several inches of snow and a hard freeze. No one knew how much damage this would cause for the 1990 crop. As it turned out much of next years crop was destroyed. One Sugar Mill that normally has 100 plus days only ground cane for less than 20 days. Everyone was unsure if history was going to repeat itself. As it turns out there were several days of rain prior to the freeze and snow. Apparently the ground froze and insulated the sugar cane roots.
Subsequently, the 2018 growing season began with nervous growers anxious to see young emerging shoots mark the row in late February. To the surprise of many, the crop returned and before long many were impressed by the density of their stand. In some cases, weak older stubble was sacrificed, but not at a level much different than what might be seen returning after a mild winter. Favorable spring weather allowed growers to get in the fields early to apply spring weed control. The multiple bouts of snow during the winter of 2017 and a three-day freeze in January of 2018 eliminated traces of hold over crop growth that needed to be clipped.
Initial evaluations of the crop were favorable, but growth in the newly emerged shoots was stagnant. Cool temperatures lingering into the late spring stunted growth. Multiple, late season cool snaps pushed into May. Dry conditions once temperatures finally warmed up also stifled development.
Luckily, the 2018 crop has not been hampered by early season brown rust, West Indian cane flies or much sugar cane borer pressure. The lack of these problems can probably be attributed to the cold wintery conditions that eliminated the green bridge of cane needed by these pests to survive. Also sugar cane borer flare ups are generally aided by spring and summer showers that have not been particularly plentiful early in 2018.
Despite having a lack of pest issues, the 2018 crop has stayed short in many areas. Mostly, due to dry conditions that lingered through the summer. This lack of crop height forced many growers to delay the start of planting season. Using short cane to plant drives up planting cost as planting ratios were initially too steep to stomach. Planting activity generally starts in late July. Short cane had many growers waiting until mid-August to get going with planting. With the discussion of mills getting started around September 20, many growers are in need of good weather to assure that they will be able to finish planting before the start of grinding. Many growers lack the equipment or manpower to plant at the same time that they are still harvesting cane. Therefore, help from Mother Nature will be needed to allow planting to finish in time.
Another concern about the short crop is the effect that the application of ripener might have on plant height. Ripeners increase early season sugar content to the detriment of continued crop growth and development. Older stubble planning to plowed out is generally treated first with ripener. If this cane remains relatively short, tonnage levels are expected to be low. One of the impressive facts about the 2017 harvest was the high tonnage and sugar that came from the old stubble. It is probably not reasonable to expect this type of tonnage on the old stubble this year.
In summary, many growers are unsure about what to expect out of the 2018 crop. The density of the stands is good, but the crop height is short. Grinding will start early and growers may receive a quick answer to their yield question. Favorable late season growing conditions in the past have given some similarly short crops an opportunity to catch up. With some timely rains and a warm fall this crop may exceed our expectations.