Sugarcane losses could go into new season

CHENEYVILLE, La. — Experts say the state's sugarcane industry faces even more tough times as Louisiana farmers strive to rebuild worn equipment, determine future crop losses and obtain operating loans to continue farming.

"It is difficult when a farmer has a good crop in the field and it is suddenly ruined by weather," said LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Ben Legendre of the situation farmers faced this past fall — which resulted in an 18 percent drop in sugar production in the state.

Two devastating weather events struck the state within a week — Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili. Following those storms this fall, persistent rains brought even more tremendous losses to sugarcane and other agricultural crops in the state.

Worse yet, experts say the losses could stretch into the next season because of damage done to the new crop while harvesting the old one.

The persistent rainfall this fall forced sugarcane farmers to harvest their crops green — without the benefit of removing trash by burning — and to do this in muddy fields.

That marked the beginning of a cycle that resulted in increased costs and reduced production — factors that are bad for any industry and can be devastating for farmers, according to LSU AgCenter experts who spoke during a recent central Louisiana gathering last week.

To explain, the added weight and abrasion of mud moving through the equipment caused enormous wear on harvest equipment, which resulted in higher maintenance or replacement costs. Then the added weight of mud and trash resulted in additional transportation costs.

Milling costs also were affected by increased trash and mud in cane deliveries. Worse yet, the added trash and mud reduced overall recovery of sugar by the factories.

"Farmers and sugarcane mills had tremendous losses because of the additional mud and trash," Legendre said. "With the increase in mud and trash delivered to the mill, the production of sugar was decreased by approximately 40 pounds per ton of cane processed."

The expert also explained that most factories try to wash mud from the cane during processing, but the efficiency of the washing operation is low and it results in an added loss of sugar of 6 pounds to 10 pounds per ton of cane in the wash water.

As a result of the storms and the wet weather that followed this fall, the production of sugar in the state fell 300,000 tons from the previous year — although approximately the same number of acres of sugarcane were harvested and taken to mills. That loss of sugar translates to an approximately 18 percent drop in production.

Sugarcane mills also will face increased maintenance costs because of mud mixed with loads of cane. Experts say sugar mill operators will need to repair the excessive abrasion that occurred as the mud and sugarcane moved through the mill and that any equipment that came into contact with the mud will need to be repaired or replaced before the next season.

Unfortunately for farmers, the losses don't stop there, according to experts, who explain next year's crop could be reduced because of this year's weather.

"It is difficult to estimate the cane damage that was caused by exposing planted cane to the weather while harvesting in the mud," said Legendre, adding, however, that damage is a possibility based on the harvest conditions farmers faced.

"Operating in the muddy fields caused many equipment failures and damaged the top of the rows where cane is planted," Legendre said, explaining that when tractors sink in the furrows, they commonly drag dirt off the top of the row — thereby exposing the stubble sugarcane to low winter temperatures.

Exposed stubble will commonly freeze in the winter and die. And that causes a reduced yield the following year.

Chemicals used on this past year's cane also may have an adverse affect on next year's crop, another LSU AgCenter expert pointed out.

"It is difficult to determine the damage that was caused by the application of chemical ripeners before harvest," said LSU AgCenter weed specialist Jim Griffin, explaining that many farmers in the state already had applied ripeners before the storms to enhance the sugar content of the cane at harvest.

But since wet weather prevented harvesting on time, the ripener agents, which are herbicides used at a lower strength than they are for killing weeds, may have had time to move down the cane stalk and into the root zone. That could kill some plant roots and thus reduce the plant population for this year, Griffin said.

"Farmers definitely need to take precautions and reduce plant stress this season to avoid killing more cane plants," he said.

John Chaney writes for the LSU AgCenter. (318–473–6605 or [email protected]).

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