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 Home>Communications>AgCenter Leads>Crops & Livestock>

Research Boosts Sugarcane Business

When the Jesuit priests first brought sugarcane to Louisiana in 1751, little did they know that they were laying the foundation for an industry that now contributes $2 billion to the state's economy. The industry could not be sustained, however, without the research of the LSU AgCenter.

In the past century, research advances in both production and processing have kept Louisiana’s sugar industry alive. In recent times of stagnant and decreasing sugar prices, increased production efficiencies – including new high-yielding varieties – and new processing technologies have helped the Louisiana sugar industry remain profitable. The focus of LSU AgCenter sugarcane research is to help maintain a competitive and viable sugar industry in Louisiana.

Read about the 30th Annual Sugarcane Field Day on July 18, beginning at 8:30 a.m. with registration.

Sugarcane is a tropical crop trying to survive in Louisiana’s temperate climate. The ability to grow sugarcane in Louisiana and increase sugar yields to levels attained in the tropics has largely been the result of sugarcane breeding efforts. These efforts began in Louisiana in the early 1920s. The development of new varieties for Louisiana is a cooperative effort involving the LSU AgCenter's Sugar Research Station, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Houma, La., and the American Sugar Cane League.

Breakthrough Variety

Soon after its introduction in 1993, LCP 85-384 became the predominant Louisiana sugarcane variety and reached a peak acreage of 91 percent of the sugarcane acres in the state in 2004. By commonly outproducing the former leading variety by 25 percent or more sugar per acre, LCP 85-384 significantly increased producers’ gross income. Since then, the percentage of the state’s acreage planted to LCP 85-384 has diminished because of the susceptibility of the variety to common rust, a fungal disease of sugarcane, and because of decreased vigor.

LCP 85-384 revolutionized Louisiana’s sugar industry not only with higher yields but also with the ability to provide additional annual cuttings of stalks, termed stubble crops (because the new crop of stalks develops from the stubble remaining after harvest). The typical rotation for Louisiana sugarcane has been to plant a crop in late summer for harvest the following fall or winter followed by two stubble crops in subsequent years. With LCP 85-384 and subsequent new varieties, farmers can obtain three to four stubble crops with a single planting. Each additional year of stubble saves the grower the expense of planting new cane and of leaving a field out of production for a whole year.

View an illustration of the sugarcane production cycle.

The heavy tonnage they produce causes new varieties to have a tendency to fall down (lodge). Because of this, a new combine harvesting system was introduced in Louisiana in the mid 1990s. Combine harvesting systems are better suited to varieties such as LCP 85-384 and its successors and have improved harvest efficiency in the state. In 2007, it is estimated that 75 percent of the state's sugarcane crop was harvested by combines.

New Varieties Show Promise

In 2004, two new sugarcane varieties were released – L 97-128 and Ho 95-988. These new varieties continued to give growers a wider selection among varieties as more growers decreased their acreage of LCP 85-384. L 97-128 was released primarily for its early maturity and vigorous early season growth. Like HoCP 96-540, this variety has an erect growth habit. Ho 95-988 was released because of good sugar yields, stubbling ability and diversity in its genetic background. Upon release, Ho 95-988 was resistant to brown rust. Two years after release, however, high levels of brown rust began to appear in the variety. This underscores the need for successful breeding programs that can continually provide new varieties with increased yield potential and disease resistance.

In 2006, L 99-226 and L 99-233 were released to growers in Louisiana. In variety trials across the state, L 99-226 has typically had higher yields of sugar per acre than the other varieties tested. L 99-226 has a large stalk diameter, excellent yields of sugar per acre and high sugar per ton of cane. L 99-233 was released primarily because of its stubbling ability. Its yield in older stubble crops is excellent. L 99-233 has a high population of small diameter stalks. Both of these varieties tend to lodge (fall over in high winds) but have been harvested well by Louisiana’s combine harvesters.

HoCP 00-950 was released in 2007, primarily for its unsurpassed early and high sucrose content. Although the variety is relatively short early in the growing season, it has a good population of medium-sized stalks. HoCP 00-950’s yield of sugar per acre has been equal to that of HoCP 96-540.

The newest variety, L 01-283, was released in 2008. It joins several other sugarcane varieties released in the past few years to replace LCP 85-384. The new variety has an erect growing habit. “The variety stands up well and stubbles well,” Gravois said. “It offers high yield with good disease resistance and good insect resistance.”

Energy Cane

Sugarcane is a popular feedstock for ethanol production in Brazil and many think that sugarcane can be a valuable energy source in an emerging biofuels market in the United States. Ethanol can be produced from the sucrose produced in sugarcane’s sweet stalks or it can be produced from the conversion of bagasse – the fibrous pulp remaining after sucrose is extracted from the stalks.

Obtaining energy from bagasse is nothing new to the Louisiana sugar industry. Bagasse is typically burned as a fuel source in boilers that produce steam, which is the main energy source for operating factory equipment used to produce of raw sugar. Some sugar factories produce excess steam to operate turbines that cogenerate electricity for the factory.

With these possibilities in mind, three high fiber sugarcane varieties were released in 2007. The LSU AgCenter, in cooperation with the USDA-ARS and the American Sugarcane League, released L 79-1002. The USDA-ARS, in cooperation with the LSU AgCenter and the American Sugar Cane League, released HoCP 91-552 and Ho 00-961.

Some of these early-generation hybrids can be used to produce clones with high fiber content along with vigorous growth, excellent stubbling ability, a more erect growth habit, better cold tolerance and high yields of biomass. Biomass includes soluble solids (sugars) and insoluble solids (fiber, which is composed of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin), components that can be converted to ethanol.

HoCP 91-552 and Ho 00-961 have fiber content about three to four percentage points higher than commercial sugarcane varieties along with comparable sucrose content. These varieties could serve a dual purpose as sources of both raw sugar and fiber.

Impact

  • LCP 84-385 revolutionized the sugarcane business in Louisiana. It boosted yields and spun off economic development through production and sales of new sugarcane harvesting equipment.
  • Experts expect new variety releases to continue to bolster the position of Louisiana as one of the premier sugar-producing states in the country. Sugarcane variety development is a partnership among the LSU AgCenter, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the American Sugar Cane League, which is headquartered in Thibodaux.
  • Sugarcane is grown in 24 parishes. Louisiana has 12 sugar mills, one syrup mill and two refineries.
  • Louisiana produces about 16 percent of the total sugar grown in the United States. This includes both beet sugar and cane sugar.

The LSU AgCenter is one of 11 institutions of higher education in the Louisiana State University System. Headquartered in Baton Rouge, it provides educational services in every parish and conducts research that contributes to the economic development of the state. The LSU AgCenter does not grant degrees nor benefit from tuition increases. The LSU AgCenter plays an integral role in supporting agricultural industries, enhancing the environment, and improving the quality of life through its 4-H youth, family and community programs.

Last Updated: 7/3/2012 1:33:26 PM

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