(07/21/23) ST. GABRIEL, La. — One may think that a lack of new varieties being announced at the annual LSU AgCenter sugarcane field day would mean that research efforts have slowed down, but the opposite is true. It means the science is working.
The event, held July 19 at the AgCenter Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel, marked its 40-year anniversary by kicking off with a variety update given by AgCenter Sugar Research Station breeders Collins Kimbeng and Michael Pontif. And perhaps the biggest news coming out of this presentation was that there wasn’t much news at all.
“It’s not every year that we don’t have a new variety, but that’s the nature of the breeding program — there’s an ebb and flow,” Kimbeng said.
Pontif then went on to explain the details behind the lack of a new variety this year.
“We have a meeting at the league office every year, and we look at all the varieties. We dropped 16-600 and 16-608 because they weren’t up to par with those you currently see behind me,” he said.
Pontif said the mission statement of the breeding station is to improve upon existing commercial varieties in the sugar industry. So, if there is a variety that goes all the way through the program and doesn’t meet expectations, the researchers are forced to discard it.
“We hate to do it, but if they’re not acceptable or not beating the varieties we already have out there, then there’s no reason to release them,” he said. “We’re improving varieties. We’re not keeping the status quo.”
According to Pontif, this will be a crucial year to determine if variety 17-738 is good enough to be in the field with varieties like 299, 885, 306 and 267.
“But so far, things are looking good,” he said.
After the variety update, attendees moved on to a presentation by AgCenter nematologist Tristan Watson, then to entomologist Blake Wilson, who spoke about the effects of hard-to-detect wireworms on sugarcane crops.
“There hasn’t been much research done on wireworms in the past,” Wilson said. “The reason is because they are soil insects that live underground throughout their life cycle, and infestations tend to be highly sporadic and hard to predict.”
Wilson said that unlike sugarcane borer larvae that can be reared in large numbers in a lab, wireworms have to be field collected.
“Historically, they’ve been considered a pest of plant cane, reducing emergence in the fall,” he said. “However, we’ve got a lot of recent observations that suggest they can continue to impact sugarcane plant stands throughout the crop cycle, reducing ratooning ability in first and second ratoon crops as well.”
At the next stop, station coordinator Al Orgeron spoke about the effect of ripening compounds on cane.
“Last year, we had 516,000 acres of cane and that’s a sign of a healthy industry,” he said. “The biggest threat of losing a cane crop is a freeze. So, because we have a limited time frame to produce this crop, we have to use chemical ripeners to enhance the sucrose early in the season.”
Glyphosate has been the industry standard herbicide for more than four decades, Orgeron said, but recently some cultivars like HO 12-615 have shown problems ratooning when the chemical has been applied. Orgeron hopes he’s found a solution.
“We’ve started mixing glyphosate with Moddus, which works in the same fashion,” he said. “We’re not trying to kill the cane; we’re trying to reduce the vegetative growth, so the plant energy, instead of going into growth, goes into sucrose storage. Ripeners have played a tremendous role at making us a sustainable industry.”
AgCenter sugarcane specialist Kenneth Gravois gave a positive crop update in spite of the mid-March freeze.
“Our varieties can withstand these spring freezes, so we got off to a good start with a dry, late winter and spring, which allows the crop to tiller out, so we had good stands,” Gravois said. “Then June and July were hot and dry. If you got rain, you had a better crop, but if you missed the rain, your crop is a little bit behind.”
Sugarcane is a resilient crop, he said, so if the region starts getting more rain, those crops that may have missed it earlier in the year can bounce back.
The field day concluded inside with updates from Matt Lee, LSU vice president for agriculture and dean of the College of Agriculture; Jim Simon, general manager of the American Sugar Cane League; Michael Salassi, director of the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station; Tara Smith, director of the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service; and AgCenter economist Michael Deliberto.
Lee lauded the achievements of the AgCenter in the year since he assumed his role and said it was well positioned for the future.
“Our scientists, engineers, staff and extension agents have all been working to lay the groundwork of what I believe is a new era at the AgCenter to help support the industry,” Lee said. “The feedback and opportunities producers give us as we work together will shape the direction we take in a state that is leading the industry nationally in sugarcane production.”
LSU AgCenter Sugar Research Station coordinator Al Orgeron talks to field day attendees about a spray drone July 19, 2023. Photos by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter
LSU AgCenter sugarcane breeders Collins Kimbeng, left, and Michael Pontif, right, discuss their work during the AgCenter Sugar Research Station field day July 19, 2023. Photos by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter
LSU AgCenter entomologist Blake Wilson shows samples of wireworms during the AgCenter Sugar Research Station field day July 19, 2023. Photos by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter