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Louisiana sugarcane: Biofuel possibilities, new legislation, varieties and pests

The legs under the Louisiana sugarcane industry aren't nearly as wobbly as they were a few years ago.

“There are still concerns, but things are looking better,” says Ben Legendre, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist. “Find some wood and knock on it.”

The current farm bill debate is of keen interest to the Louisiana sugar industry.

“We still import sugar. We have various agreements — NAFTA, CAFTA — with trading partners that have allowed for additional sugar to come into our country.”

As a result, there's a no-cost provision in the farm bill. That means there can be no charge or cost to the federal government.

“To do that, though, if we drop below a certain level of imports to keep price up, we must reduce the amount of sugar we produce internally.”

That hasn't happened in the last couple of years because of the 2002 hurricanes. Then, the residual effects of those were experienced in 2003 and 2004 before hurricanes again showed up in 2005.

Last year, the state's sugar industry rebounded a bit. But producers still didn't meet the amount of sugar allocated to Louisiana.

“So we haven't been on any restrictions in marketing sugar in the state for the last few years. Of course, the price remains low. One thing the sugar industry would like to see in the new farm bill is an increase of the loan rate from the current 18 cents up to 19 cents, or more.”

One of the things hurting Louisiana sugarcane agriculture is the great influx of people into the corridor between Lafayette and New Orleans along I-10.

“In our prime sugarcane area — from Lafayette to New Iberia and Franklin to Thibodeaux and Houma and into New Orleans — we're finding people have moved in a huge wave.”

Several years ago it became obvious cane acreage was being lost to urbanization in a dramatic fashion.

“I know that in the last year, LSU ag economists have taken numerous calls on cane land being taken for new housing and development. The same is true for me and parish Extension agents.

“Cane farmers are losing much of their better land to urbanization. In the past, there hadn't been a lot of legal agreements between landowners and farmers — a handshake was good enough. Most of the cane growers in Louisiana are small, family-type operations that lease land. There are some that own land but, for the most part, that's not the case.”

Now, landowners are being offered $15,000 or $20,000 per acre for development and they're selling.

“Who can blame them? But that means the cane farmers are left without many options.”

Legendre, who serves in a dual capacity as both AgCenter sugarcane specialist and interim head of the Audubon Sugar Institute in St. Gabriel, La., says it is “exciting times” with the nation's focus on biofuels and the potential for sugarcane to be a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol.

“Here at the Audubon Sugar Institute, we're doing research on that. We're looking at bagasse, the fibrous residue from cane, as a feedstock for ethanol.”

That work has just begun with a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“But we've made headway and are continuing to study it. Hopefully, within a short time, we'll be able to show there's an economic manner of using bagasse or other cane residue to produce fuel. I'm very excited about the possibilities.”

In early May, USDA, the LSU AgCenter and the American Sugarcane League announced a new variety of cane, HoCP 00-950. “It's very high in sucrose and tends to mature very early. We continue to try and diversify the industry from largely growing one variety into many.”

Legendre's fear of cane monoculture is tied to a variety released in 1993, LCP 85-384. By 2001, that variety was being grown on over 90 percent of Louisiana cane acreage.

“The main problem is that the variety succumbed to rust and caused tremendous loss of yield. That's one reason after the hurricane years in the (new millennium), yields dropped off so dramatically.”

Fortunately, there were new varieties already in the pipeline. Those have since been released and have taken over for LCP85384 (better known as 384).

In the last five years, six new varieties have been released. Farmers now have varietal options capable of outyielding 384 — even when it was in its heyday.

“The new ones are able to outyield it in tons of cane per acre and/or sugar per ton. Regardless, the new varieties outyield 384 in sugar per acre.”

The impact of 384 on the Louisiana sugarcane industry wasn't just in variety selection but in a major equipment shift. In 1993, 384 increased yields about 30 percent over the varieties it replaced. As 384 was broadly adopted, producers began purchasing combine harvesters, typically used in areas where cane yields are 40 tons per acre, or better.

“Prior to 384, we didn't have such yields. Individual fields may have reached 45 tons, but the industry as a whole usually hit around 25 tons to 30 tons per acre.”

When 384 became the dominant variety in 1999, yields jumped by around 9 tons per acre. “So we were then averaging around 35 to 40 tons per acre. In 1999, the average was 37 tons per acre across the cane belt.”

The new variety had a propensity to lodge, though. And cane farmers found that when a variety lies down, the old harvesting system didn't work well. That's why, in the mid-1990s, several Louisiana growers tested combines on 384. They found the set-up worked wonderfully.

“That's what led to 90 percent of our cane being planted to 384 and that same acreage being harvested by combine. It was a dual adoption. We went from cutting cane in an erect position to combining it. That meant little burning due to the use of combine extractor fans and that cane could be harvested green and cut into billets of 6-inch to 10-inch pieces. The system also required a trailing wagon and the cane was delivered directly to the mill — all very different than with the previous whole-stalk harvesting practices.”

Now producers are going away from 384 with only about 50 percent in that variety. And Legendre expects the dip to continue. “You can't jump into a new variety overnight because of seed cane needs and other things. Regardless, about 35 percent of the acreage will be in HoCP 96-540. There are also a 1995 variety, a 1997 variety and two 1999 varieties that are taking more acres.”

Then, there's a new variety released just weeks ago: HoCP 00-950. “It has comparable yields to the other varieties. Where it stands out is it has a very high level of recoverable sugar early in the year — more so than any variety we've seen in recent years.

Another reason 384 was adopted so rapidly: when it was released, the variety was resistant to all major diseases, including rust. But like rust in other crops — whether wheat, rice or soybeans — the organism can change rapidly. A variety resistant to rust today can be vulnerable tomorrow.

“None of the six new varieties we've recently released are perfect against diseases. Ho95-988, which looked very good in heavy soils, was also resistant to rust when released and now it's very susceptible.”

Another variety, HoCP 96-540, originally had no problems with disease. However, this year, “we're beginning to see rust in it as well. The rust isn't as bad as in other varieties, but it's there.”

A variety known as L 97-128 appears to be good against rust. But smut, another fungal disease, has been found in it.

As for insects, the sugarcane borer can be serious for a crop if left untreated. “We'd like to breed to withstand the borer, but finding resistance to insects is very difficult. Of the six newer varieties, only one is considered resistant to sugarcane borer. The others are either susceptible to moderately susceptible.”

There's good news, though: because farmers use integrated pest management practices to assess insects and whether to spray, fewer treatments are being used.

“Last year, we had the lowest level of insecticides used in probably a decade. So even with susceptible varieties, with IPM and 99 percent of growers using professional scouts or checking themselves, the use of insecticides has dropped incredibly.”

A new insect on the march is the Mexican rice borer. It's on Louisiana's doorstep, within a county of the Louisiana/Texas border.

“This pest is a serious threat to cane and it's been moving up the coast of Texas for five years, or so. Every year it seems to leapfrog another 50 to 70 miles. The Mexican rice borer is probably worse for cane than the sugarcane borer.

“There's been considerably research on the Mexican rice borer in Texas. When it makes it to Louisiana, hopefully we'll have enough information to prevent any serious losses.”

Louisiana cane producers are in the process of getting fields ready for planting while cultivating cane planted in previous years. Approximately 25 percent of farmers' fields are fallow, to be planted in August and September. The remaining 75 percent is currently in sugarcane — either in plant, or stubble cane.

“In many cases, we're recommending fewer passes across the field. In planted cane, our farmers are trying to reduce costs by (reducing field traffic) while maintaining yield. Traditionally, cane farmers cultivated three to six times. Now, they're going across fields only two or three times.

“The new herbicides work well for farmers and we don't have to use as much cold steel when prepping land for planting. Johnsongrass and other weeds aren't as formidable and we're able to control them more economically.”

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