When the sugarcane harvest in Louisiana started in late September, growers were harvesting upright stalks, enjoying exceptional sugar recovery levels and fighting dusty conditions in the field.
After two rain events over consecutive weekends, it has become a reversal of fortune for growers. Cane fields are a muddy mess, cane is lying flat, and recoverable sugar levels are falling significantly.
“The first part of the grinding season was good. We had dry weather. We had straight cane, and we had phenomenal sugar recoveries,” said LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Ken Gravois.
The first wave of rain came with the remnants of Hurricane Patricia. Rain inundated much of the state with the sugarcane-growing area receiving the highest rain totals. Then on the weekend of Halloween, farmers received a trick in the form of a second wave of rain nearly equal to the first.
“We normally receive about 15 to 16 inches of rain during the entire harvest season,” said Bobby Morris, a sugarcane grower who farms 3,500 acres of cane in West Baton Rouge Parish. “We received roughly that much over the past two weekends.”
Fall rain events have a tendency to be accompanied by wind. The rain and wind can cause the cane to fall making it difficult for the combines to pick up and harvest the cane. The rain also leads to more trash and mud on the harvested cane, which eventually ends up at the mill and reduces the efficiency of sugar recovery.
“I would say after the rain our sugar recoveries went down about 10 to 20 percent,” Gravois said.
Morris said before the first round of rain, most farmers were in need of “a 1- or 2-inch rain.” He said he was enjoying some of the highest recoverable sugar numbers for October that he had ever experienced.
“We had some 270s to 280s (pounds of sugar per ton of cane) levels which is unheard of for October. Unfortunately, after all the rain, we won’t approach those levels the rest of the season,” Morris said.
According to Gravois, the crop can bounce back if favorable weather returns.
“It’s not necessarily the rainfall event that matters, it’s the weather after. So if we can dry back up and cut this crop under drier conditions, the effect will be a lot less,” he said.
However, the weather forecast does not appear promising. The forecast calls for a third consecutive weekend of rain, which will make deteriorating field conditions even worse.
Compounding the problems for farmers, this year’s crop was running short on tonnage per acre, according to Morris.
“The spring was really wet, and we didn’t get the number of stalks that we usually have, so that reduced the crop somewhat,” Morris said.
Even with all the rain, Morris said that sugarcane growers will continue the harvest as best they can.
“We’re used to it. We will do what we have to do to get the crop in,” he said.
One upside is an increase in prices because Hurricane Patricia passed directly over some of the sugarcane region of Mexico.
“Raw sugar prices are hovering around 25 to 25 and a half cents per pound. That’s good. Prices are decent,” Gravois said.
Gravois also said farmers are going to harvest about 380,000 acres of cane to be processed in the 11 mills located across the state. He also expects the crop to come close to its five-year average of approximately 1.4 to 1.5 million tons of raw sugar.