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Louisiana sugar harvest sets record

Cane harvest on the Vallot farm near Abbeville

The 2016 Louisiana sugarcane season has ended with a record set for the amount of sugar obtained per ton of cane.

"Tonnage was really light, but we blew the roof off sugar recovery,” said LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Kenneth Gravois.

The average sugar recovery set a record at 246 pounds of sugar per ton of cane. The previous record was 232 pounds, he said.

The harvest produced an average of 31.5 tons per acre, down 2 tons from last year. Prices held steady around 26 cents a pound, he said.

Weather cooperated for the most part. "It was excellent through the first week of December,” Gravois said.

The West Indian cane fly was found in high numbers, but two chemicals, Karate and Intruder/Strafer, provided good control, Gravois said.

Some brown rust disease cropped up. "By and large, we finally have a good set of fungicides to handle that,” he said.

Acreage increased to 431,000 in Louisiana, up by 21,000 from the previous year, with most of the increase from the north and west sides of the growing area, Gravois said.

Planting was delayed last year because of heavy rain in August followed by dry weather until early December. "We’re going to have some spotty stands of plant cane,” he said.

Recent cold weather won’t damage the young crop, but the low temperatures could help the next crop by reducing insect populations and decreasing disease severity, Gravois said.

Jimmy Flanagan, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Mary Parish, said the year was better than average. "All in all, I think everybody is breathing a sigh of relief,” he said.

Sugar recovery decreased in the last two weeks of harvest because of muddy conditions.

Tonnage for first-year stubble and plant cane was good, but the second- and third-year production was off, probably because muddy harvest conditions during the 2015-16 harvest caused excessive rutting and delayed fertilizer applications. Flanagan said.

Stands of late-planted cane could have problems. "We won’t have a good handle on the populations until this spring,” he said.

Farmer Ronald Hebert, of Jeanerette, said he was satisfied with the harvest results. "I would say it was a little above average for us. We did better than last year.”

The West Indian cane fly was controlled with spraying, and fungicides did a good job of controlling disease, he said.

Hebert said he was disappointed with the first-year stubble yields, and he blamed the disappointing result on the fall drought.

Stuart Gauthier, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Martin Parish, said the August flooding didn’t seem to affect the cane. "It’s ironic we had some cane impacted by the flood, but probably more of the cane was impacted by the drought,” he said.

Tonnage was off in St. Martin Parish by 10-15 percent. Grinding ended two weeks earlier at the mill at St. Martinville, he said, because of the high sugar recovery rate.

Blair Hebert, LSU AgCenter county agent in Iberia Parish, said the light tonnage of sugarcane was a disappointment, but that was offset by what was probably a record sugar recovery rate. "We may have had one of the best sugar years we’ve ever had in terms of pounds of sugar per ton of cane,” Hebert said. "All things considered, we’re pleased.”

Last year’s harvest was the opposite of 2016-17. "The tonnage was tremendous last year. But we were in the mud every day, and it was an expensive crop,” he said.

The light sugarcane probably was the result of weather stresses and the West Indian cane fly, he said.

Farmers had completed harvesting their crop by the first week of January. "The crop was at the mills by the time the freeze came,” Hebert said.

Plant cane appears to have made it through the early January freeze. "It looks like the plant cane wants to come up,” he said.

Stephen Borel, LSU AgCenter county agent for sugarcane in West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes, said the tonnage was surprisingly light, likely because of the weather extremes and West Indian cane fly.

Farmers average roughly 27 to 28 tons per acre instead of a good harvest of 30 to 32 tons. But sugar recovery was high, averaging around 250 pounds per ton. "We had some reports as high as 280, but that was on small acreage,” Borel said.

August flooding interrupted planting. Farmers "were cutting and planting all the way into September,” he said. Nevertheless, area mills were able to finish the season before Christmas.

Al Orgeron, LSU AgCenter extension agent in St. James Parish and regional pest management specialist, said most farmers seem pleased with the outcome. "We ended up with a pretty good crop,” he said.

A dry start to the harvest gave farmers good conditions for cutting with straight cane that had responded well to ripener, he said.

Like other areas, cane tonnage was down in St. James Parish, but sugar recovery east of the river was up, in the range of 220-238 pounds. "We have a lot of guys who think this may be a record crop,” Orgeron said.

But cane planting was complicated by flooding followed by a drought, and the plant cane hasn’t emerged in some fields. "When you dig it up, it’s rotted,” he said.

The West Indian cane fly was found in isolated populations in the areas along the Mississippi River, but not as numerous as areas of the Bayou Teche region, Orgeron said.

Blaine Viator, a crop consultant for growers in south Louisiana, said the sugarcane crop endured extremes of heavy rainfall and drought.

The muddy harvest of 2015-16 resulted in rutted fields that damaged the stubble and affected yields this past growing season. "In some cases, we saw a 5- to 7-ton difference in yield between what was rutted and what wasn’t,” Viator said.

Many areas of the state received a year’s worth of rain by September, he said, complicating fertilizer and pesticide applications. The heavy rainfall also worsened insect and disease problems.

Flooding in August resulted in plant cane that was submerged, Viator said, and some fields had to be replanted. Some farmers opted against plowing up old stubble, uncertain whether plant cane would produce a crop.

"After all we went through with this extreme year, financially, many sugarcane growers may end up being in good shape given the lower harvesting costs and optimistic price outlook for the 2016-2017 crop,” Viator said.


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