In more than one way, last year's hurricanes are still rippling through Louisiana's sugarcane industry. But while the hurricanes can be blamed for producers playing crop catch-up and dealing with salted soils, they can't be blamed for the forced move away from a variety mainstay.
Katrina arrived last Aug. 29 when better than 50 percent of the state's crop was already planted. Typically, cane producers begin planting in late July and get most in the ground during August. The storm caused approximately 300,000 acres of cane to lodge — about half very badly.
“After the crop lodged, many farmers had to go to Plan B in planting — instead of using whole stalks, they planted billets,” says Ben Legendre, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist. “That meant the seed cane required was more than usual. Nonetheless, the crop was planted.”
For the most part, the far western area of the state wasn't affected by Katrina. That meant Iberia Parish, St. Mary Parish and parishes farther north didn't have much lodged cane. Producers there were able to plant most of their crops with whole stalks.
But then Hurricane Rita arrived and it was feared some 12,000 acres of planted cane had been affected by flooding.
“After Rita, cane was plowed out and some growers tried to put in another crop. That cane didn't come up to as good a stand. However, without doing that there would have been no chance for a crop.”
The other problem in cane-growing areas was saltwater flooding. Salt concentrations in the top 3 inches of soils was as high as 8,000 parts per million. Unfortunately, that hasn't diminished.
“Since Rita, the amount of salt has actually gone up in some soils. That's because there hasn't been sufficient rainfall to flush out the salt.
“It's certainly been an interesting year. Of course, normally we don't have the flooding. But once we had it, we felt sure the salt would be flushed out by winter and spring rains. That hasn't happened.
“We're now 20 inches below normal for rainfall. The effects of that are showing up — especially in Vermilion Parish and south Terrebonne.”
This spring, because producers got most of the cane planted before last fall's storms, “Louisiana has some of the nicest plant cane crops we've had in a while. Most of that is in new varieties.”
The need to change varieties is due to rust conditions in LCP 85-384 — once the state's leading cane variety.
Rust wasn't a problem until three years ago after 384 had become a major player in the industry. How major? At one time, up to 91 percent of the state's cane crop was planted in the variety.
When it was released, 384 was resistant to rust.
“There was rust in the state and 384 had no trouble. Even so, as breeders, we told farmers it wasn't a good idea to get so involved with one variety. But that one was the horse and most producers said, ‘As long as it's the one most likely to make us the most money, we're going to ride it.’”
That was before everyone found out rust could dog the variety so badly that 7 tons and 2,000 pounds of sugar per acre can be lost to the disease.
“Last year, after everyone realized what was happening with rust, many tried to plant other varieties released recently. Much of the plant cane was in those varieties — most in HoCP96-540. Only about 20 percent of the plant cane crop last year was in 384.”
As in much of the Mid-South, Louisiana had no real winter in 2005-06. So, this spring, producers found rust was even more of a problem in 384.
“Right now, we feel anywhere from 20 to 25 percent of the whole crop is heavily infected with rust. You can see it easily — it has a red hue. Currently, tests with fungicides are being done to determine if this disease can be controlled. The industry is very concerned with rust considering the amount of cane still in 384. We hope the crop will grow out of it.”
The history of 384 is an interesting, cautionary tale. In 1993, when 384 was released, CP70-321 was the major variety.
“70-321 was a good variety but didn't stubble well. You could make a decent crop of plant cane from first and, to a lesser extent, second stubble. Beyond second, though, we weren't able to make much of a crop. In fact, yields dropped so low most farmers had to plow it out.”
In field tests alongside 70-321, 384's average yield was 30 to 35 percent better. Not only did it have better yield, data also showed producers could keep the variety into third or fourth stubble and still average better than 30 tons of cane to the acre.
When growers saw that, there was no turning back.
“They began planting 384 like crazy. And the yields they were getting encouraged even more acreage to be planted in it. Who could blame them? Some 384 plant cane did better than 50 tons per acre. We had yields into fourth stubble that were better than 30 tons per acre.”
The problem with 384 was because it yielded so well it sometimes lodged badly. But there was a solution: buy new harvesting equipment.
“At that time, say the mid-1990s, we'd rarely used combines in Louisiana because our yields were never high enough to justify them. But producers found they could do so much better with a combine on lodged 384. That revolutionized the manner of our harvest. Unfortunately, those combines cost between $200,000 and $250,000 and wagons must be purchased along with them.”
Today, better than 85 percent of Louisiana's crop is harvested by combine. This is a “complete turnaround” that was ushered in by 384, says Legendre.
And it wasn't just producers that were taken with the variety.
“The producers and mills spent a lot of money basically converting to 384. That was the cause of the change. Instead of whole-stalk cane coming to the factories, billeted cane (pieces 6 to 9 inches in length) were coming in. That changed how cane was processed.
“We went from being able to leave cane in the field for a few days without serious deterioration to having cane that, if it wasn't processed within 14 to 16 hours, experienced serious deterioration.”
“This year, we actually have a nice stubble crop. In talking with growers, they feel it's the best looking crop at this time of year since 2002 (when growers averaged about 34 tons per acre despite hurricanes Isidore and Lily). Last year, we only averaged 25.7 tons per acre — one of the worst crops in a decade or more.”
But concerns remain. St. Mary, Lafourche and several other parishes are in an extended drought.