Wheat prices are high, so farmers in south Louisiana are curious about pairing the grain with sugarcane.
“Every year, about 25 percent of cane land is fallowed out,” says Blaine Viator, a well-known Louisiana crop consultant. “Cane is a perennial crop and is grown for about four years.”
By the fifth year, weeds and diseases have built up. So cane producers plow out about a quarter of the land in December and spend the next eight months trying to control weeds and prepare the land for the next four cropping years of sugarcane.
For years, growers have been planting soybeans in the “fallow” fields and harvesting just in time for the fall's sugarcane planting.
But since it can be harvested in May, wheat is a more cane-friendly crop. The early harvest provides cane growers two or three months to address the weeds and get land prepped — a mercy period that soybeans don't offer.
“In the past, a few growers have played with wheat. Now, though, everyone and his brother are interested in planting wheat this fall.”
Producers are always looking for new cropping possibilities, says Ben Legendre, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist. “In some cases, wheat may be better than growing soybeans during the fallow period. I was at a Farm Bureau meeting recently and spoke with growers.
“In many cases, the farmers will continue to plant soybeans (on fallow cane soils). After harvesting cane, they'll break the stubble and allow the rows to sit for the winter. As soon as they can in the spring, they'll plant soybeans. Usually, those beans are 3.9s, or so, so they can get the beans out in August.”
When considering wheat instead of beans, “the growers told me as soon as they harvested the fields that will be taken out of cane next year, they'll break the stubble, rebuild the rows and go right on top with wheat.
“The wheat will emerge and they'll harvest it next spring. The price of wheat and possible income they can get during the fallow period is healthy for their bottom lines.”
Traditionally, south Louisiana has had fewer suitable wheat varieties than northern neighbors. “If you look at (LSU AgCenter grains breeder) Steve Harrison's variety data, we're much more limited in varieties,” says Viator. “I assume that's because this area tends to be wetter and more humid. I believe we have about half the number that other areas can grow.”
For the most part, those wheat varieties are very early maturing with heading dates “generally in the upper 70s or low 80s. We prefer those because the earlier the variety, the faster the grower can get the crop out and prep for cane planting.”
Weather conditions work in south Louisiana's favor with the early-maturing wheat varieties.
In areas outside south Louisiana, “if you plant early maturing varieties at the wrong time, you'll increase the chances of freeze damage. Because we're so far south, we don't have nearly as much concern with that. The chances of us getting a damaging freeze late spring at heading are generally small.”
There are other trade-offs, however. “Drainage is certainly one. Honestly, I think drainage is probably 80 percent of the battle with variety selection taking up the balance.
“If 25 percent of a grower's land is fallow, then he'll plant only half of that percentage in wheat. They want to leave some acreage to work in while the wheat is maturing.”
That said, a cane grower could pick and choose the fields he wants to grow wheat on. “Thankfully, that allows us to pick fields that are sandier and better drained. I try to steer growers away from planting wheat on heavier soils.”
Some cane growers are planting wheat on raised, six-foot wide cane beds. The main reason for that is growers often prefer not to ever knock rows flat and then have to redraw them.
“It takes highly skilled employees to draw rows,” says Viator. “Growers tend to prefer ripping cane out of the row center and leave it intact. They just rework the row back up and go on.
“So, we've been asked, ‘can't we just drill wheat on the beds and possibly gain yield advantage by keeping roots dry?’ We began experimenting with that and, last year, had quite a few clients try it.
“I averaged yields between those growing wheat on flat ground versus raised beds. We actually lost yield — around 5 bushels per acre — by planting on a raised bed.”
It turned out that the drilled wheat on top of the beds did better. The problem was only two-thirds of the field could be planted with wheat because the furrows either wash the wheat away or wheat in the furrows stayed wet longer.
Many growers are willing to accept the 5-bushel loss. “Drilling on beds fits better into their operations. They'd much rather sacrifice a few bushels than have to redraw rows. We'll be crunching the data on this again this year. We want to know if that 5-bushel loss is consistent.”
There are many rookie wheat farmers in Louisiana this year. “Of course, among the first few things we hammer on are ‘drainage, drainage, drainage and then, variety, variety.’”
The problem is many growers have decided only at the last minute to jump into wheat. “Currently, seed selection is absolutely horrendous. I've never heard of some varieties available. I'm reluctant to recommend any of them. But some growers don't have a choice and we'll try to help them deal with it.”
Viator saw the seed crunch developing long ago. “We told every one of our wheat-growing clients to book seed early. Most had every bit of their seed booked by June or July. So, all my clients have premium varieties (at least on the books), the ones that have great yield potential and disease resistance packages.”
Another issue: many people in south Louisiana don't usually farm grain. That means a dearth of grain harvesting equipment. “It's always a challenge when there's a bump up in wheat, soybeans or corn acreage in our area. Only so many contract harvesters will come in. Right now, growers must decide whether to invest in a combine or scramble to find someone to cut the wheat.”
Fall fertilization is a topic of debate. Viator's belief is that “if we plant later in the accepted timeframe — south of I-10, that's between Oct. 15 and Nov. 15 — then we'll sometimes add a bit of a starter fertilizer to help the crop get started before dormancy. But unless the grower gets into a bind planting late, we rarely do that.”
In the spring, Viator suggests a typical top-dressing of nitrogen with 12 units of sulfur. “If soil tests indicate a lack of available potassium and phosphorus, they may be added to the mix. But generally there is enough residual of those nutrients left over from the cane crop.
“Some growers split the spring application, particularly when forced to fly it on. Others put it out in one shot. I've yet to see any big advantage between the two as long as the applications were made in the proper window.”
The biggest issue coming up — “and I'm struggling with what to do with this” — is wheat seed treatments. Prior to last year, no one around here considered a wheat seed treatment. These seed treatments are now coming out of the woodwork. Every company seems to have one.”
Very little research has been available on wheat seed treatments. A bit was done last year in a few states, “and, in some situations they provided stand and disease help. But I haven't seen anything that's consistent and, to be honest, there are so many products I don't know which to consider. At this point, I've told my clients I don't have enough information to recommend it.”