Despite two hurricanes that caused considerable flooding in Vermillion, St. Mary, and Iberia parishes, Louisiana’s 2008 sugarcane yields were good.

“The gross value of the crop paid to growers and landowners was right at $373 million,” says Ben Legendre, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist. “The amount that went to mills and marketing — about 38 to 40 percent for the total amount received for sugar — was around $250 million.”

The total value for the 2008 cane crop was about $621 million. That’s not bad, says Legendre, “especially considering the hurricanes and about 30,000 cane acres flooded. Sugarcane still ranks first in value amongst Louisiana row crops.”

Prior to the hurricanes, it was thought the crop would yield between 35 tons and 37 tons. The yield ended up averaging some 33 tons, seventh best yield in the state’s history; yield of sugar-per-acre ranked third highest; yield of recoverable sugar per ton of cane was second highest.

“Last October (Hurricanes bitter for Louisiana sugarcane growers), I thought we’d have much lower yields. After Hurricane Lily in 2002, the crop suffered lodging, rains fell almost the entire year and recoverable sugar averaged 179 pounds. Last year, though, recoverable sugar was 224 pounds.”

The 224 pound average may see an additional bump once warehouses liquidate supply from 2008. Typically, “mills have 2 to 5 percent in the warehouse because they don’t want to be caught short when selling to the refinery. So, after that sugar is calculated in, the overall yield may be as high as 225 or 226 pounds. That could be a state record.”

Sugar landscape

Even though growers had a decent crop, “we were hoping for a better one. And the price of sugar is much lower than we’d like to see. In fact, it’s very close to forfeiture levels. Several mills that have sugar under the loan program are now considering the fact that, with the price at such a low level, it might be more advantageous to forfeit it. However, that hasn’t taken place and everyone is hoping for a better sugar price as the season progresses.”

Attendees at a mid-spring meeting with Louisiana Rep. Charlie Melancon and Barbara Fecso -- a USDA-FAS official who administers the farm bill sugar program -- were told up to 1 million tons of sugar is being imported from Mexico without tariffs. The Mexican sugar industry is looking for hard currency as the peso is devalued against the U.S. dollar (which has gone from 10 pesos per dollar less than a year ago to about 15 pesos per dollar now).

“As a result, they’re moving more of their sugar northward to the United States to get dollars. Under the terms of NAFTA, they can export as much sugar as they want into the United States. Then, they’ll buy sugar from other countries to supply their own needs. That isn’t good…and is disrupting the U.S. sugar program. In effect, Mexico is an equal player with the U.S. producers. They’re competing for the sugar dollar. Even though the USTA can’t administer or do anything against Mexico, they can basically curtail U.S. sugarcane production to satisfy the WTO.”

Right now, the price of sugar on the raw market side is depressed. However, on the refined side, sugar is worth better than 30 cents per pound.

“The user groups are hollering because the refined sugar prices are so high. But a lot of that is tied in with the fact we lost a refinery a year ago. Imperial Sugar, which accounted for 1 million tons of refine sugar (annually), blew up and hasn’t yet been put back on-line. Raw prices are low because we don’t have the refining capacity to get it out of the way.”

2009

There has been a gradual trend towards reduced sugarcane acres in Louisiana. In 2001, the state had almost 500,000 acres. Last year, slightly over 400,000 acres were reported.

“New varieties helped the situation, offset a lot of the harm. Back in 2002, following a series of hurricanes, there was a lot of wet weather. The sugar recovery was only 179 pounds.”

In 2005, there were two hurricanes, but the weather after them was relatively dry. “So, we were able to harvest under more-or-less ideal conditions and the overall sugar recovery was 219 pounds — that’s quite good, about the 10-year average.”

In 2006, however, early December freezes — freezing temperatures four nights in a row — meant lost cane and the overall recovery was only 206 pounds, the second-lowest in the last decade.

In 2008, as previously noted, hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit and the crop still yielded 224 pounds.

“I looked at varieties, nitrogen fertilizer recommendations, at what the hurricanes did — in terms of the shock to the crop, stalk breakage, flooding, and the use of chemical ripeners. Last year, because we had dry weather following the hurricanes, we were able to harvest the crop with a minimal amount of mud and leafy trash. Even though the cane had been lodged dramatically by the storms, the dry weather allowed the cane to pick itself up enough that farmers were able to harvest without making a mess although they were not able to properly top the stalks. The fact we had unlimited sunlight for about 10 weeks didn’t hurt, either.”

In a study he conducted a few years ago, Legendre found that solar radiation is the single-most important factor in cane ripening. The second is lack of rainfall and the third is cooler temperatures that tend to reduce growth.

“Well, with new varieties, we’ve put a lot of emphasis on early maturation and high sucrose content. Those are basic selection criteria. All of the new varieties, with one exception, have better levels of sugar than previous releases.

“I just looked at the LCP 85-384 (more commonly called 384) outfield test for 2008. The 384 had about 285 pounds of sugar. For comparison, our number one variety, HoCP 96-540, also had 285 pounds. But a newer variety, L 97-128, was at 300 pounds; L 99-226 (currently being increased) was at about 305 pounds; HoCP 00-950 was at about 315 pounds. Only one other variety, L 99-233, was equal to 384.

“So, the new varieties have at least as much sugar as 384 and, in most cases, more. 384 is considered an early-maturing variety with good sugar content.”

Looking at second-stubble yields, 384 was at 282 pounds; 540 was about 285 pounds; 128 was at 283 pounds; 226 was over 300 pounds; 233 was down because of its high tonnage at about 275 pounds; 950 was at 300 pounds; and L 01-283 was at about 287 pounds. Those results also show the newer varieties contain more sugar, says Legendre. In first-stubble and plant cane the same was shown.

Nitrogen

When Legendre first came to LSU, there were indications too much nitrogen was being applied to Louisiana’s sugarcane crop. Cane was lodging and sucrose content was being affected.

“We began several experiments and I worked with county agents in several parishes along with soil scientists. It turned out we were applying about 20 percent more nitrogen than was actually needed.”

Initially, there was some concern by growers that without enough nitrogen, cane tonnage wouldn’t be high enough. And if the sugar “isn’t there along with lower tonnage, the crop would provide less sugar per acre.

“Well, we’ve done these studies for about six years — and continue them — and every year, even after hurricanes, found that reducing nitrogen fertilization by 10 to 20 percent, we can maximize sugar-per-acre and also increase the amount of recoverable sugar per ton of cane. It’s true that tonnage may drop a little, but the increase in recoverable sugar overshadows that.”

Legendre and colleagues recommended growers go with lesser rates of nitrogen. “It didn’t take long to figure out reducing nitrogen can save a considerable amount of money. Most growers went with the lower rates last year. I think that had a lot to do with the increased sugar-per-acre tally.”

Hurricane Gustav caused broken stalks — tops were taken out and the bottom portions were left, which contain relatively high sugar amounts. With the hurricane damage, vegetative growth stopped. But all the subsequent sunlight allowed the cane to increase sucrose content at the expense of vegetative growth.

Glyphosate is used on cane as a chemical ripener. Even though the amount used in 2008 was probably less than in previous years, “we know that with ripeners you can increase recoverable sugar by 5 to 30 pounds per ton of cane. That, along with everything else, improved the sugar-per-ton count.”

All of this came with a price, though. In many cases, because of the hurricanes last August, growers couldn’t get cane planted until late September and October. This year, that will translate into as much as a 20 to 25 percent reduction in yield of the plant cane crop.

On top of that, the aforementioned dry weather that helped the harvest of the 2008 crop “was our worst enemy when planting late. In many instances, very crooked cane was planted because of the lodged conditions. Because of the crooked stalks, the cane had to be planted with less soil on top. As a result of the dry conditions after planting, much of the plant cane deteriorated and dehydrated.

“This spring, we have one of the poorest plant cane crops in years. Many fields are being plowed out. Of the plant cane acres — and there was probably 100,000 acres — there are concerns about at least half. The yields won’t be in the 40- to 50-ton range we were getting with the new varieties.”

The stubble crop looks good, however. Because growers harvested most of last year’s crop under dry conditions, the stubble wasn’t damaged and was followed by a mild winter.

“Even though we have about 30 percent plant cane, it’s about 40 percent of our yield. Right now, it may bring 25 percent of the overall yield, if that much.”

Financing is also becoming a problem for some farmers. Even though they had a good 2008 crop, the price for sugar “isn’t providing a lot of capital. With the cost of fertilizer, cultivating and other inputs, many growers are having problems with funds.

“And the expense of planting next year’s crop, which must be planted in August and September, still has to be figured in. Growers won’t get any money from the mills until after the first week of harvest. Right now, money is tight and farmers are being crunched, just trying to survive.”

Editor’s note: The 2009 Area-Wide Sugarcane Field Day for the LSU AgCenter’s Sugar Research Station at St. Gabriel, La., is set for July 15.

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com