The 2018 Louisiana sugarcane harvest resulted in record yield in terms of tonnage but a reduced sugar recovery from last year.
"When it’s all said and done, we should make the same amount of sugar, which was a record last year,” said LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Kenneth Gravois.
The grinding season usually ends in early January, but mills went as much as two weeks later. The last two mills to finish were LASUCA in St. Martinville and the St. Mary Sugar Coop in Jeanerette. Both expected to complete grinding Jan. 19.
The cane yield will be around 38.8 tons per acre, compared to 36.6 tons last year. "The only way to process that is with a longer processing season,” Gravois said.
Sugar recovery this season will be approximately 217 pounds per ton of cane, he said. Last year’s recovery was 242 pounds per ton.
Mud from a wet fall and winter complicated the harvest, and it resulted in a long processing season. More mud and leafy material had to be removed in the sugar-making process, which slowed down grinding.
"Mud means more wear and tear on equipment,” Gravois said.
A somewhat dry spell in January allowed some farmers to get into fields that had been too muddy for harvest earlier, he said.
Some farmers in the southern part of the sugarcane-growing area were unable to plant all of their crop at the usual time in late summer, and some farmers were planting in October and November, he said. But cane that was planted will benefit from the wet fall and winter.
The sugarcane crop in central Louisiana had some issues with long dry spells last summer, and that affected yields there.
With the end of the season, mills will have to start working on maintenance to get ready for the next harvest, and farmers will have to repair their rutted fields.
The 2018 crop at 459,000 acres was an increase of about 19,000 acres, and next year’s crop is expected to be even larger with expansions in the northern and western parishes of the sugarcane belt.
"We’re looking at another big crop,” Gravois said.
Stuart Gauthier, AgCenter agent in St. Martin Parish, said this season has been "a story of high tonnage but low sugar.”
The long grinding season has been a challenge for farmers too. "It’s been horrible weather from the start to the finish,” he said.
Bulldozers have been used to maintain roads, and some farmers have even used excavators to get their equipment out of the mud.
Farmers have harvested 36 to 38 tons of cane per acre, resulting in about 205 pounds of sugar per acre, Gauthier said.
To get the cane out of the muddy fields, farmers had to use more fuel to operate their equipment in a harvest that reduced efficiency.
Fortunately, he said, the crop was not exposed to harsh freezes like last year.
A warm winter will set up good growing conditions for the stubble and plant cane, but it could promote rust disease, Gauthier said.
Blair Hebert, AgCenter agent for St. Mary and Iberia parishes, said rain and muddy conditions dominated the harvest, but it’s possible that the Bayou Teche area set a record for tonnage.
Some fields were left unharvested, and farmers will have to decide what to do with that crop, while some fields could not be planted.
"We cannot deny this was a much more expensive crop in terms of labor, fuel, maintenance costs and supplies,” Hebert said.
By Jan. 14, the grinding season had lasted 110 days for most mills.
Farmers were working without days off for more than 100 days. "It shows you how dedicated they are and how much they love it,” Hebert said.
And farmers were conscientious about being good neighbors, trying to keep roads clean of mud and debris, he said.
Mill managers won’t know how much work needs to be done until grinding equipment is torn down for maintenance. "They all feel they need to start earlier and they’ll finish later than they’d like,” Hebert said.
Many farmers were harvesting 40 tons of cane per acre, but sugar recovery of 215 pounds an acre was normal. "When it’s all said and done, the farmers are going to be pleased with the crop,” he said.
In some cases, ripener was applied to cane that stayed in the field longer than recommended, and it’s uncertain what effects that will have on the regrowing crop next year.
Farmers now must return to the fields to work the land and get it back in shape to promote needed drainage, Hebert said.
AgCenter agent Steve Borel said yields in West Baton Rouge, Pointe Coupee and Iberville parishes averaged about 40 to 41 tons an acre, and sugar recovery was 220 pounds per acre. "We’re going to be a little lower than last year,” he said.
Sugar recovery decreased in the past two weeks.
A freeze in November resulted in some quality problems. "But it could have been a lot worse,” Borel said.
A harvester cuts the last row of sugarcane in a field near St. Martinville on Jan. 18, the final day of a long, difficult harvest. By mid-January, most mills had completed grinding, but mills at Jeanerette and St. Martinville were still running and ended their grinding season by Jan. 20. Photo by Bruce Schultz/LSU AgCenter