Hurricanes bitter for Louisiana sugarcane growers

The Louisiana sugarcane harvest won’t be nearly as sweet after hurricanes lashed the state. “Whenever you have winds that are hurricane force — and we had some winds that exceeded 100 to 110 miles per hour — the cane crop will be impacted,” says Ben Legendre, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist. “Gustav wasn’t moving at a very rapid pace. As a result, the cane was hammered: lodged, laid down on the ground.”

At the same time, as those winds passed through the crop, the leaves were whipped around like an old flag. The leaves became frayed, resulting in loss of moisture and function.

Now “we’re watching many fields turning brown because, in effect, the crop is dehydrated. Those fields look very bad.

“Believe it or not, a week or so after the initial hurricane, the cane stood up at almost a 45 degree angle. That’s in keeping with newer varieties. We now have HOCP96540 as the major variety that’s in approximately 50 percent of the fields. There’s also 97128, which is on about 20 percent of the acreage. Those two varieties tend to handle lodging well and they stood back up.”

However, with the tremendous wind velocity — hardest hit parishes include Terrebonne, Lafourche, Assumption, Ascension, Iberville, West Baton Rouge and Point Coupee — almost all the leaf material from every variety was torn.

“Until the crop can produce new leaves, we won’t see the ripening effect needed. What that means is the maturity of the cane crop is being impacted, it won’t contain as much sugar and it won’t respond to the glyphosate ripeners normally used.”

Normally, cane still grows around 2 or 3 inches per week through September. However, because of the leaf situation, that growth was lost, reducing tonnage and sugar.

Even on the bottom side of the hurricane’s eye, where the wind intensity wasn’t as great, “the damage is still bad, although not as much as further north. Those parishes include St. Mary, Vermillion, Iberia, and Lafayette.”

How bad are losses? “At this point, beyond ‘badly impacted’ it’s hard for me to say exactly what our sugarcane losses could be. Certainly, any more bad weather and they’ll be much worse than what we’re looking at now. Now, if the good weather holds, the cane will be able to recover a bit. But, even best-case, we’ll have some severe sugar losses.”

Prior to Gustav, “we thought the crop was at least a 34.5-ton crop and 215-pound sugar. That’s somewhere around 7,400 pounds of sugar. Those numbers are comparable to the 2007 crop.”

After Gustav, “we estimated getting around 6,500 pounds of sugar. After Ike, the estimate has dropped again to around 6,290 pounds, or so. The losses were estimated at 12.5 percent prior to Ike. After Ike, the percentage jumped to 15.”

It isn’t just the crop impacted by the hurricanes but harvesting, as well. Even where the crop isn’t lying on the ground, combines have to proceed much slower than normal. That means harvest will be more expensive due to diesel costs. Also, the cane will be very brittle and more will be lost to scrap.

Typically, with felled cane, density becomes an issue, says Legendre. “Producers won’t be able to put as much cane in the truck. That will make it more expensive to the mills that process cane.”

Gustav, with its awesome winds, also caused a lot of stalk breakage, “especially in HO95988. That variety was blasted. In some fields breakage is at 80 to 90 percent.”

For every 1 percent of breakage, a grower can expect a loss of 0.3 percent in terms of sugar per acre. So, “for every 3 percent of broken stalks, the operation loses 1 percent of its sugar per acre.”

Fields with 90 percent breakage could conceivably lose 30 percent of their sugar. Fortunately, not all fields have that level of breakage. And “thankfully, only 5 or 6 percent of Louisiana’s total cane acreage is in HO95988.”

Due to the harvesting conditions described, cane going to the mill includes more trash than normal. Instead of the regular 5 to 8 percent trash, mills may find 15 to 20 percent in the cane. That will reduce the cane’s quality.

For every 1 percent trash in cane, recoverable sugar losses are about 3 pounds per ton of cane. “Say trash percentage leaps from 8 to 15 percent — a 7 percent increase. In that case, recoverable sugar would be reduced about 20 pounds per ton of cane.”

The mills will take a considerable loss, says Legendre. “They grind cane to produce sugar. It costs them the same amount to grind a ton of cane, regardless of how much sugar is recovered. There is a point where the cost of grinding is greater than the proceeds from extracting sugar. It could be much harder for mills to show a profit.”

Hurricane Ike brought winds that were 50 to 70 miles per hour. In some of the southern parishes, “that caused some cane that had picked itself up after Gustav to lodge again.”

Unlike Gustav, Ike also pushed saltwater inland. Ike flooded the same 30,000 to 40,000 acres that Hurricane Rita deluged in 2005. Ike didn’t bring a tidal surge and debris, though.

“After Rita, some fields had masses of marsh grass and debris 5 feet tall. Ike didn’t do that — he just pushed water in constantly for several days.”

How bad will the saltwater problems be? “With Rita, the saltwater caused delayed maturity, lost tonnage and low sugar recovery. The reports say things aren’t that bad with Ike — flooding was about a foot less than with Rita. Now, the soils that had salt from Rita — and that salt had gradually leached away — just got another shot.”

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