When sugarcane producer Ted Broussard started planted soybeans on his fallow sugarcane ground 12 years ago, he wasn’t expecting the crop to turn much of a profit. Instead, he was looking to improve soil tilth for his plant cane, not much more.
But $16 soybeans have changed that approach, although sugarcane remains Broussard’s main focus.
Broussard farms 3,280 acres of sugarcane and soybeans with his son, Quaid, and his nephew John, in St. Mary Parish in Louisiana. About 600 acres to 800 acres of that are usually planted to soybeans, on what typically is fallow land following the plowing out of older cane.
“When we originally started planting beans, my goal was not to make money at it. My goal was to do it at no cost to me, plus get the benefit of mellowing that land,” Broussard said. “But the price of beans kept going up, and we started making a little money. We started putting money back into grain equipment, and now we need to make money at it.”
The latest addition to the farming operation is a 22,000-bushel grain bin, built because the local elevator will not be receiving grain this year due to upgrades in the facility by the new operator, Louis Dreyfus.
“Other elevators are going to be inundated with tons of trucks,” Broussard said. “We’re cane farmers, and we’re not rigged up to move a lot of grain. When I’m cutting beans, I need to be right behind that operation, planting cane. I have to move it quickly. I can’t wait for trucks to come and go. The new bins should hold the majority of our 600 acres. We can haul it off when it’s convenient to us.”
The bins will also allow Broussard to cut soybeans at a little higher moisture. “We struggle with moisture down here, big time. There are so many days that you are so close to the right moisture but if you haul it, you get docked. The bins will allow us to take the beans out a little early, dry them down and get them out of the way so that we can plant our cane.”
Older can stubble
To prepare ground for soybeans after harvest, Broussard will take out the older cane stubble, knock the row down and laser level if he has to. Soybean ground is prepared sometime in October, November or December, weather permitting.
Any ground that requires laser leveling will require that cane is burned off. “I do chop it under and let the shucks rot if I don’t have to laser level it. Most of the cane is burned. There’s nothing close to the efficiency of burning.”
Historically high soybean prices have allowed Broussard to purchase a new combine and planter for his soybean operation. “The money I make up for soybeans I put it back into soybeans and equipment to become more efficient at it.”
Another benefit that Broussard has found for soybeans, which are all Roundup Ready varieties, is that bermudagrass infestations in sugarcane are typically less after ground is planted to soybeans.
Planting of sugarcane is the most labor-intensive time of the year for Broussard, and it’s all done by hand. For this operation, Broussard’s labor force increases from 13 hands to 35 hands. At harvest, the labor force can grow to as many as 20.
One complication is the increasing paperwork for his sugarcane labor. Broussard has taken some extraordinary steps to stay ahead of potential labor issues.
“I invested in some new sugarcane planting machines about five years ago when I bought a farm. Last year, we totally rebuilt them with computers to control the flow. They work pretty good right now. That machine plants one row at a time. I’m having a machine built that plans three rows at a time.
“I hope to take delivery, put it in the shed, close the doors and never have to use it. The machines are just for when we can’t get the labor. With all the regulations and paperwork, if you don't cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i,’ you could get delayed two weeks in getting labor. Two weeks is a lifetime during cane planting season.”
Within a day of planting, Broussard will apply a herbicide to sugarcane. “For grass control, we will come back with Prowl or Sencor. If we think we still have a problem we’ll come back with Command. We’ll come back sometime in late October or early- to mid-November with the second application of a herbicide.”
A warm winter in south Louisiana meant sugarcane never quit growing this season, Broussard noted. “There are pros and cons to a warm winter. You get an earlier start but something will always bring you back to reality. Not having the winter did bring on rust problems in the cane. And by the second week in June, I was already making a second application for borers in some areas.”
Western Indian cane fly
Broussard’s biggest insect pest this season turned out to be West Indian cane fly. There were sporadic infestations across cane country, but the heaviest populations were in southern St. Mary Parish, where Broussard farms.
Broussard’s consultant, Blaine Viator, says it’s too early to predict yield reductions from the fly. “This is not necessarily a new pest, but it is the first time that we’ve ever had to control it economically.”
Louisiana applied for and was granted a Section 18 crisis exemption for the application of the imidacloprid to control the cane fly. That exemption was to have expired August 22, but according to Viator, populations of the pest were still continuing to build in mid-August.
Broussard plants 9 sugarcane varieties on land that varies in texture from sandy to heavy clay, and he is constantly evaluating a number of new cane varieties every year.
Broussard harvests cane with two John Deere cane harvesters, which he puts through the rigors. “Most farmers harvest around 400 tons a day with a harvester. We run 600 tons to 700 tons a day with a machine. I’ll keep the machine three years and then trade it in. After three years they still have a high resale value. A lot of the combines have electronics on them, and the worst thing for electronics is to sit idle for nine months out of the year. So we roll them over real quick.”
Half of Broussard harvested cane goes to the mill in a truck with a side dump trailer. The other half is hauled in boxes. We fill the boxes with a high dump wagon, and we use an excavator with a large grab to top them off. We haul our cane 60 miles so we need to have our tonnage right. We make a nice load.”
Broussard said the biggest threat to the U.S. cane industry is the government’s role in labor issues. “With all of the extra people that we have to bring in, it can be a nightmare. In the past, I’ve spent much as $5,000 a year to do the paperwork and applications for visas. I understand the need for regulation, but this year I’m going to spend upwards of $25,000 on paperwork.”
There are times when Broussard and other producers simply have to do without adequate labor. “We plan months ahead, but sometimes, it’s just impossible to find enough people. We find ourselves working 18 hours a day.”