Even with freezes and rain in early and mid-December, Louisiana’s sugarcane harvest was shaping up to be one of the best in years. Then more rain came, and what could have been an excellent year quickly turned into just an average one.

During the early part of the harvest, yields of cane tonnage from fields and the resulting recoverable sugar yields at the mills were above expectations, according to LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Ben Legendre.

“Growers were reporting yields in some of the older stubble of LCP 85-384 in the upper 30s and lower 40s of tons of cane to the acre,” Legendre said. “We had growers in their plant cane reporting 50 to 60 tons of cane to the acre.”

At the mills, the amount of recoverable sugar earlier in the harvest was as high as 220 pounds of sugar per ton — well above the five-year average.

Then hard freezes in early and mid-December knocked back yield numbers slightly.

“When it gets down to 24 or 25 degrees, basically the whole stalk is frozen from top to bottom.” Legendre explained. “You have stalk damage. You have cell damage, and deterioration can set in within a week or so.

“Freeze-damaged cane is harder to harvest and process. Coupled with rain, a difficult situation became worse. The rain has caused tremendous problems in the field with harvesting in terms of muddy conditions and the increase in leafy trash,” Legendre said.

Sugar mills are having difficulty processing the freeze-damaged and rain-soaked cane, and factory yields of recoverable sugar have dropped into the 140s in pounds of sugar produced per ton of cane.

“It appears the overall average for 2006 will be around 200 pounds of sugar per ton — still average over the past 15 years, but disappointing considering the great start to the year,” Legendre said.

Nearly 2,000 acres of cane were abandoned in the western part of the state because of the freeze and problems at a mill, and Legendre expects pockets of cane will not be harvested in other areas because of the freezes and rains.

Worse yet, he said, the effects of the rain could linger into the 2007 crop. The fields look similar to what they did following Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili during the 2002 harvest, he said.

“Most growers were harvesting their plant cane in late December, and we will see residual effects from this in the first stubble,” Legendre said.

“Prices are under 20 cents a pound to the growers,” Legendre said. “This is the lowest price we have seen in quite some time.”

Seven of the state’s 13 mills are still operating. Most are expected to wrap up the processing of this year’s crop by early January.