Despite some relief from late-May rains, much of Louisiana remains in a moisture deficit.

The spring drought is a marked turnaround from last fall when, as in other areas of the Mid-South, the state’s harvest of crops was one of the wettest on record.

Last fall “there was a lot of damage and rutting of fields,” says Blaine Viator, a well-known crop consultant based in Plattenville, La. “When you have to harvest in those conditions it typically causes a lot of damage to the cane stubble following the harvested crop.

“On top of that, last winter there was a rather severe freeze. That had us worried because there are a lot of newer varieties and we were unsure how they’d tolerate freezing temperatures of any duration.”

That led up to a very cool spring. As a tropical crop, “sugarcane didn’t respond well. It was one of the slowest emerging crops I’ve seen in quite a while.

“Of most concern is 540, the cane variety that is grown on the largest acreage in the state. Historically, it’s been very slow to emerge. However, by August it usually outyields everything else.

“This year, 540’s slow emergence was even more pronounced. That worried a lot of growers because other varieties emerged fairly rapidly in comparison. Now, though, we’re finding that most of the older stubble fields that weren’t plowed out — kept for this year’s crop — have shown a lot of improvement in recent weeks.”

South Louisiana has one of the best plant-cane crops (planted last August and September) Viator has seen “in a while. For the most part, it survived the freezing temperatures well, is very strong and is off to a good start. With all the rain last fall, there are some places with poor drainage that have led to losses. But barring those low-lying fields, we have a nice plant-cane crop.”

Some have said that due to the problems outlined above, cane growers will see 10 to 20 percent off normal tonnage. In early June, Viator isn’t yet as pessimistic. “Sugarcane is a 12-month crop. It can make up a lot of ground very quickly with decent weather — no 4-inch-plus flooding rains and no severe droughts from June through August.

“In 2009, because of the drought during the summer, most of us didn’t think we’d have much of a crop. Then, in September, late rains arrived and the crop exploded. We ended up with close to record tonnage — and that crop was pretty much grown from September through November.

“So, I think the current crop has quite a bit of potential to be either bumper or above-average.”

The prospect of good prices for sugar — 24 to 30 cents per pound — has pleased cane producers. However, it made for some interesting management and planting decisions.

“If this comes into play, we’ll be looking at some of the best prices since 1974. … That said, we didn’t want a lot of older-stubble cane plowed out followed by a larger than normal planting in 2010. Growers are thinking these prices will only last through this crop. If that’s the case, we want to take advantage of the price for the current crop and have the most acreage of profitable cane to harvest this year.

“That’s why we kept a little more of the older stubble than is normal. At the same time, we didn’t throw our plant/first-/second-/third-stubble rotation too far out of balance.”

Brown/orange rust

Since late May, a sugarcane variety in the southern parishes is showing signs of brown rust infection.

“That disease took out our biggest variety, 384, a few years ago. The rust has largely taken out 988 and other varieties are being hit — especially 540, which seems to be developing an increased susceptibility to brown rust.”

Because of the very cool spring followed by the May drought brown rust “has been very slow to show up. Although some of the researchers at the USDA station around Houma found some low levels of rust sporulating in 988, we’ve yet to see it in a big way in the Cane Belt.

“Primarily, brown rust will attack sugarcane during the ‘grand growth’ stage. That’s when the crop is growing most rapidly. That’s right around the bend because of the recent rains and the cane has just been fertilized.”

If rust comes in, it will likely hit before mid-June. “Most people feel it’ll show up late enough that it won’t do much economic harm this year.”

Viator and colleagues are also watching for orange rust of sugarcane. The rust “was found in Florida two years ago and we figure it’ll find its way to Louisiana. As of yet, though, there’s been no detections in the state.

“With brown rust, once it gets hot, the cane can usually grow out of susceptibility. But that’s usually the point when orange rust — which prefers warmer temperatures — begins to infest cane. So orange rust could extend the window the cane is susceptible to rust diseases. If that occurs, it’ll be harder to justify any chemical control because multiple applications of fungicides would be needed for protection. At that point, it probably wouldn’t be economical.”

Over the last week of May, most areas “are finally catching some good rains. But because of the earlier drought stress, some of the varieties are showing pronounced levels of smut. Varieties like 128 will be the hardest-hit but even 233 and 226 are showing smut whips beginning to form. Some growers are unaware of this because the whips are still below the canopy.

“Right now, though, growers are encouraged. That wasn’t the case a month ago although there’s a long way to go for the crop.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com