Research looks at drainage in sugarcane fields for economic, environmental benefits

Linda Benedict, Merrill, Thomas A.  |  8/6/2009 8:31:42 PM

LSU Ag Center scientists expect a field full of underground pipe will prevent surface runoff, protect the environment and improve profits for cane growers.(Photo's by Mark Claesgens)

This piece of equipment, called a trencher, was brought into lay the plastic pipe in the sugarcane field at the Sugar Research Station. Guided by laser, the trencher lays the pipe 4 feet underground. The trencher digs and threads the pipe simultaneously.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the LSU Agricultural Center are beginning a 5- to 10-year project involving drainage systems for sugarcane production that could result in environmental and economic benefits.

Goals of the joint research and demonstration project, which involves pump enhanced underground drainage for fields, are to determine if the systems can reduce the losses of fertilizers and pesticides carried in surface runoff from the cropland, keep sugarcane growers’ equipment out of muddy situations and increase farm profits.

The project will be coordinated by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) on a 16-acre site at the Sugar Research Station at St. Gabriel. It will compare traditional sugarcane production methods with those using the subsurface drainage system to determine any economic and environmental benefits of the enhanced system.

“Sugarcane growers are coming under increasing pressure to reduce the amount of chemicals leaving their fields and entering streams and lakes,” said agricultural engineer James L. Fouss, who heads the project for the ARS’s Soil and Water Research Unit in Baton Rouge. “A controlled subsurface drainage system allows rainwater to infiltrate the soil and thus reduces runoff from the land, so chemicals and topsoil stay in the field where they belong.”

The drainage system involves a crisscrossed field of buried corrugated plastic pipe, which helps to remove excess water from the soil but also allows for the return of water to the soil through irrigation.

In preliminary tests, the drainage system appeared to increase yields as much as 25 percent and to extend the productive life of the sugarcane stubble crop, according to Fouss and project engineer Ted S. Kornecki, also of the ARS unit Baton Rouge.

As an additional benefit, by removing excess moisture from the field, the subsurface drainage system means farmers are less likely to spend time and money freeing equipment that gets stuck in the mud.

The economic and environmental returns will be studied by installing the drainage system on two-thirds of the St. Gabriel research plot and comparing results of sugarcane production on that area to the remaining third, which will be farmed using traditional production methods for the area.

The cost of installing such drainage systems is about $450 per acre – although an agricultural economist who will be part of the project’s team will be exploring ways to make its use more cost effective.

(This article was published in the summer 1999 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.) 

Tom Merrill

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