(BATON ROUGE, LA) – A late-winter freeze set this year’s Louisiana sugarcane crop back, but the outlook for harvest is optimistic, said LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Kenneth Gravois.
“We had a really, really high-potential crop until the late freeze put the crop behind,” Gravois said.
“But it was a good summer,” he added. “Even though the plants in the fields are shorter than normal, populations seem to be high.”
The optimism stems from what farmers found in their fields when they began planting.
“We can get the first idea of the upcoming crop based on planting ratios,” Gravois said.
Sugarcane grows from shoots that emerge from stalks called seed cane that are planted in the ground. One acre of sugarcane stalks called plant cane can provide seed cane for four to nine acres, depending on the planting method.
“Farmers who hand plant can get as many as eight or nine acres of seed cane from one acre of plant cane,” Gravois said. “Farmers who use machines can get fewer acres planted from each acre of seed cane harvested.”
This year, farmers are seeing ratios of 8- or 9-to-1 for hand planting and 5- or 6-to-1 for machine planting. This means large numbers of stalks per acre and indicates a good crop.
Another indicator of how the crop may perform comes from stalk counts taken in research fields in August. “They tell us we’re on the high end of population,” Gravois said. “That’s good.”
“We know we don’t have a record crop, but it will be a crop that will produce yields within the average of the past five years,” he said. “We’re in the midst of the highest five-year yield average in history.”
Although stalk counts are high, the stalks are generally shorter than normal because of the winter freeze. On top of that, sucrose content in the stalks may be lower than normal.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Sugarcane Research Unit in Houma conducts maturity tests and estimates sugar content of plants.
“This year we’re seeing the lowest level since 2006,” Gravois said.
“But with high stalk populations, growers should have a good year as long as the plants stay erect and growing and getting good sunlight,” he added. “From here on out, the yield depends on weather.”
Growers hope to avoid hurricanes or other tropical storms between now and the end of harvest. Sugarcane takes from seven to 10 days to recover from a storm that knocks the stalks down.
Harvest will begin when the first mills start on Sept. 24, and all 11 will be operating by Oct. 8. That’s the start of an 80- to 100-day harvest that runs seven days a week until it ends.
Gravois is optimistic about the crop, but prices are near the same levels of the mid-1980s.
A normal year sees a yield of 1.4 million tons of sugar; last year’s yield was 1.7 million tons. That puts downward pressure on prices.
‘We had a good planting season,” Gravois said. “Now, it's on to the harvest.”
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