Tropical Storm Lee will increase sugarcane-harvesting costs
The rain from Tropical Storm Lee began on Friday, Sept. 2, and lasted through Sunday night on Sept. 4. Rain totals were in the 7- to 10-plus-inch range, with 8.47 inches falling at the Ben Hur Farm just south of the LSU campus in Baton Rouge and 7.47 inches falling at the Dean Lee Research Station just to the south of Alexandria. The highest wind gust recorded at Ben Hur was 58 mph and 50 mph at Dean Lee. That combination of wind and rain was more than enough to lodge the sugarcane crop throughout the belt, leaving no area untouched.
On Monday, Sept. 5, I drove throughout the sugarcane belt, except for Vermilion Parish and the Bunkie area, to survey the effects of Tropical Storm Lee. I also talked to Herman Waguespack, agronomist with the American Sugar Cane League. The degree of lodging ranged from extremely flat to only slightly leaning. Although variety played a large part, the degree of lodging was more influenced by the yield potential of the crop. Areas with good sugarcane growth – those areas that received more rainfall during the rather dry summer – lodged to a greater degree than those areas with a shorter crop. There appears to be only minimal stalk breakage and winds were not high enough to shred the leaves.
The downed sugarcane will make the completion of planting more difficult and expensive. I would estimate the crop to be 75-80 percent planted at the time of Tropical Storm Lee. Growers range from complete to a few under 50 percent. There is plenty of time to complete planting. There will be a lot of scouting from on top of the harvesters as the search for straighter seed cane begins as fields dry out. There may be some billet planting that will occur that may not have been planned at the beginning of the planting season. Research by Jeff Hoy, LSU AgCenter plant pathologist, indicates that varieties such as HoCP 96-540, L 99-233, L 01-283 and L 01-299 tolerate billet planting best. The longer the billet seed piece, the better it will survive.
With the rain and strong south winds, many farms have backwater that began to drain on Monday morning with the north winds blowing. Pumps are running, and it will take a little time to get water off. The forecast for drier weather this week is encouraging.
Another major effect of Tropical Storm Lee is that ripener schedules have been delayed. With factories beginning the grinding season in late September and early October, ripeners should have been going out when Lee was moving into south Louisiana. With the sunny forecast, it should take about a week for the crop to upright itself enough for ripeners to be applied. Some areas with weak stubble crops could have ripener flown on as soon as the winds die down enough to allow the planes to fly.
Downed cane will certainly increase harvesting costs, but this industry has harvested downed crops before. The weather during the 2011 grinding season will be the final determining factor on harvest costs. Let’s hope for a dry and bountiful harvest.