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Researchers continue to look for ways to reduce cane field burning

Louisiana sugarcane farmer Troy Mistretta holds a portion of the seven tons of mulch left behind in the field after the cane harvest. Louisiana farmers find it necesary to burn the mulch off the field as soon as possible to give next year's emerging crop a good head start.

The 2012 sugarcane harvest and milling season is running at peak production levels and farmers and millers are rushing to bring in the crop, but cane researchers methodically continue to look for ways to lessen the impact and possibly eliminate the need for field burning.

Ryan Viator, a sugarcane researcher with the United States Department of Agriculture Research Station in Houma, said quick cane growth after the crop has been harvested is vital for producing a profitable sugarcane crop in Louisiana.

"Leaving cold, wet mulch on top of the soil delays plant sprout emergence by two weeks and farmers could lose ten to 35 percent of the crop during that time without mulch removal,” Viator said. "That’s critical when you only have a nine month growing season.”

Viator said he and other researchers continue to look for an economically viable way to remove cane mulch from the fields but nothing yet has proven to be sustainable.

"We have conducted at least ten experiments every season for the last ten years looking at ways to mitigate the effects of cane mulch,” Viator said. "We’re looking at mechanical removal methods and studying new varieties of cane that can tolerate mulch and emerge from the ground without tonnage loss.

"We’ve been growing cane in Louisiana for 218 years and we’ve figured out the best way to grow and harvest cane, but we’re still searching for ways to reduce or eliminate field burning”

"Field burning removes all post-harvest trash left on the soil surface,” said Windell Jackson, American Sugar Cane League. "Leaving the cut sugarcane leaves to compost on the ground prevents the sun from heating up the soil. Leaving mulch in the field keeps the soil damp and promotes fungus and other plant disease growth – diseases that damage and kill the sugarcane root. The sugarcane plant needs early growth. Remember, we’re growing a tropical plant in a sub-tropical zone, so that’s very important.”

Jackson said that farmers can grow up to four crops of sugarcane from one planting.

"The sugarcane stalk that we planted last year will continue to grow for several years,” Jackson said. "Sugarcane is really a tropical grass, and while the surface grass may die over the winter, the roots go dormant and sprout again when the soil temperature rises.”

"You’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity to ensure the next crop has a good head start,” said Wallace Ellender, a Terrebonne Parish sugarcane farmer.

Ellender said modern harvesters cut the sugarcane stalk into eight-inch pieces called billets.

"As much as 8,000 to 16,000 pounds of mulch per acre is left on top of the soil after the cane has been harvested,” Ellender said. "It’s very expensive to remove the mulch by mechanical means, but it’s crucial to the health of the future sugarcane plant to remove the trash as soon as possible.”

But sugarcane farmers want to be good neighbors and are mindful that Louisiana communities are growing and expanding into rural areas that were once sugarcane fields, Ellender said.

"We don’t burn cane fields near hospitals, nursing homes and schools when students are present.” Ellender said. "We remove the mulch from those fields by mechanical methods. It costs us a little more but we’re trying to make sure patients aren’t disturbed.”

Modern farmers have also ended some burning practices that were once common on the farm, Ellender added.

"Our grandfathers used to burn everything, but we’ve stopped a lot of indiscriminate burning,” Ellender said. "We won’t burn a field if we know we’re not going to re-plant that acreage next year, and we don’t burn fallow fields either.”

Ken Gravois, a sugarcane researcher with the LSU AgCenter, said his agency developed burning protocols in conjunction with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry to minimize the impact of field burning to the public.

The course teaches farmers about safety, the best time to burn, fire behavior and other burn management techniques.

"It’s strongly recommended that farmers and their employees be certified by the state as a ‘Certified Prescribed Burn Manager’ and only burn when the weather conditions are safe,” Gravois said.

Area doctors say it’s unfortunate that the sugarcane harvest and the accompanying field burning practices occur at the height of ragweed season in Louisiana.

Dr. Chad Simon, an ear, nose and throat specialist who practices in the Thibodaux-Houma area with the Hagan Beyer Clinic, said field smoke aggravates allergy symptoms but is not always the scapegoat cause of respiratory illness.

"There’s no doubt that sugarcane smoke is an irritant and can aggravate the symptoms of allergy sufferers,” Simon said. "The symptoms are very similar, but the disease process is different. Unfortunately, cane burning season coincides with ragweed season, so we're seeing a lot of both, and a lot of the time, even we can't figure out which is which immediately.”

Dr. Simon offered these suggestions to Sugar Belt residents to minimize smoke effects on their respiratory systems:

– Stay indoors if possible during ragweed season and the peak sugarcane field burning hours of 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

– Use a sinus rinse to keep sinuses healthy. Pre-package sinus rinses are available at your local pharmacy.

– If the sinus wash doesn’t help your symptoms, consider visiting your doctor.

Information on the controlled burn procedures may be found at the LSU AgCenter website.

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