The story of the past two years in Louisiana sugarcane production has been a tale of two very different seasons for farmers.
After tallying a bumper harvest from late September through mid-January, many producers may have expected something similar for 2021, but Mother Nature has dampened the outlook for the current growing season.
“When we have high rainfall, we tend to get a little lighter crop,” Kenneth Gravois, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist, told the group of sugarcane growers at the St. Mary/Iberia/Vermilion parishes field day in Jeanerette on July 27.
“For the farmers, I know it’s been a frustrating with a year like we had last year because of COVID-19, and we had several hurricanes,” said Blair Hebert, LSU AgCenter extension agent. “But we had a bumper crop.”
The high tonnage and high sugar yields added up to a record-setting harvest in 2020, but this year’s consistent rains have delayed spring fertilization and field preparation for the planting season that has begun in some areas of the state, Hebert added.
“I’m still optimistic that we have a real good crop out there, but we need the weather to dry up so that we can get the crop planted and then get ready for harvest,” Hebert told the growers at the St. Martin/Lafayette/St. Landry/Acadia parishes field day held in St. Martinville on July 16.
Researchers and growers alike seem to be optimistic about two new sugarcane varieties for planting in 2021.
L 14-26 was developed at the LSU AgCenter’s Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel, and HoCP 14-885 was developed in a collaborative effort by breeders at the United States Department of Agriculture facilities in Houma and Canal Point, Florida.
“These new varieties contribute to record yields in a good year like 2020,” Gravois said. “And they keep you off of the floor in a tough year like 2021.”
Atticus Finger, an agronomist with the American Sugar Cane League, told producers HoCP 14-885 is a sweet, large-barreled variety that has created a buzz because of its ratooning ability.
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“For the first time in a long time, not only do we have a variety that can compete with (L 01-)299 numerically when it comes to sugar per acre, but we haven’t had a variety that was statistically significant—or better than—299 when it came to second stubble in a long time. It’s exciting to see something like that.”
Finger said the industry can thank better genetics development for the higher frequency of new variety releases.
“We are getting better germplasm through our breeding program — especially our basic breeding program,” Finger said. “It’s bringing in these wild-type parents that are super resistant to different diseases and insects. That germplasm is starting to make its way into varieties that are being released. (L 14-)885 is a good example of that.”
The field days give LSU AgCenter scientists the opportunity to highlight the research activities that are addressing diseases and pests. Plant pathology and crop physiology professor Jeff Hoy explained how the sugarcane breeding program has helped to limit damage from disease like ratoon stunting disease, rust, mosaic and red rot, an emerging disease that affects plant growth in planted sugarcane.
“They’re making crosses with combination traits to see what varieties are susceptible or resistant to what diseases,” Hoy said. “Then, we look at what’s going on with all the offspring. We work with pathologists to screen and select for varieties that have for some resistance to not one but multiple diseases.”
Blake Wilson, AgCenter entomologist, outlined how farmers can minimize crop damage from the industry’s most prominent pests — the sugarcane borer and the eastward-moving Mexican rice borer. He told farmers there was no correlation between low temperatures during a hard freeze in February and the population of the pests. But another current weather anomaly could be responsible for an infestation.
“Where we are seeing a correlation is with rainfall in the spring and summer, particularly leading to increased borer pressure,” Wilson told the crowd in Jeanerette. “In a year like this, we are starting to see a pretty widespread infestation of sugarcane borer.”
Wilson said farmers should explore pesticide options in the spring to quell summer infestations of either species.
At many recent field day events, including the two held in Acadiana, farmers have displayed alternative fertilizer options that can aid in applying fertilizers by putting the chemicals directly on top of the row with less disturbances to the root bed and surrounding soil.
Taylor Blanchard, of Blanchard Brothers Farms in Iberia Parish, displayed a spraying rig that he said allows for a lower amount of fertilizer to be used. He added applications can occur earlier because applying fertilizer to the top of the row reduced the need to allow the soil to dry in wet conditions.
“The idea is to get in there with low impact and putting the fertilizer on top of the row,” said Wilson Judice, American Sugar Cane League agronomist. “They have been doing this around the world for a long time in sugarcane. You are putting the fertilizer on the top of the row — right where it needs to be.”
The locally emerging, no-till fertilizing technology was also displayed in St. Martinville with a similar fertilizer implement fabricated by Melancon Farms of St. Martin Parish.