AgCenter researchers work to improve sugarcane production

Schultz Bruce, Baisakh, Niranjan, Tubana, Brenda S.

News Release Distributed 02/06/14

LAFAYETTE, La. – LSU AgCenter researchers detailed their projects recently at the annual meeting of the Louisiana Division of the American Society of Sugar Cane Technologists.

The conference, Feb. 3-5, was held in conjunction with the American Sugar Cane League.

Niranjan Baisakh, LSU AgCenter molecular biologist, said his team is working on the use of genetic markers to develop new sugarcane varieties with resistance to the brown rust fungus. Funds from the American Sugar Cane League are being used in the project.

“We know we are heading in the right direction,” Baisakh said.

He said a gene that imparts resistance has been found in the variety L 01-299. That variety can be used to make crosses in the development of disease-resistant varieties, he said.

Jim Simon, general manager of the Sugar Cane League, commended the AgCenter for establishing a lab to study cane genetics. “This lab is very, very important to the industry. This could be a game changer in the way we develop varieties.”

Brenda Tubaña, LSU AgCenter agronomist, outlined her work on an optical sensor that can tailor nitrogen fertilizer applications throughout a field. The sensor measures light reflectance, which is correlated to the amount of biomass in a plant, and the data are used to determine an optimum nitrogen rate.

Tubaña said the system was tested at three locations, including the LSU AgCenter Sugar Research Station and two farms. She said the sensor-based recommendation called for lower nitrogen rates that resulted in savings of $50 to $66 an acre.

She said the optical sensors have been used on the ground, but unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can be used to cover more acreage quicker.

Randy Price, LSU AgCenter engineer, said he started working with UAVs after Jimmy Flanagan, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Mary Parish, attended a conference where he learned about agricultural applications of the aircraft, sometimes known as drones. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to have guidelines for commercial use of UAVs by next year, Price said.

He said remote sensing data could be collected from the air, and the vehicles could also map a field, which could have many applications including the determination of drainage patterns.

In discussion about sugar prices at the meeting, Jack Roney, director of economics for the American Sugar Alliance, said the Mexican sugar industry has agreed not to dump its excess sugar on the American market. Low sugar prices in the United States have been blamed on a glut in the sugar supply because of Mexican imports and increased world sugar production.

Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico has unlimited access to the American market, Roney said. “We are trying to get Mexico to act responsibly for the sake of producers in the U.S. and Mexico.”

He said Mexico increased sugar production by 40 percent from the 2011-12 crop year to the 2012-13 crop year, and the excess was dumped on the American market.

Roney said the American sugar surplus has been reduced, and prices have increased slightly in the past few weeks.

“Stick it out guys. I think we’ll see better prices for the world market, and that will translate into better prices here.”

Roney said he expects sugar beet acreage to decline with the new farm bill.

Simon said the Sugar Cane League is working on the Mexico sugar problem. “We are looking for every possible way to engage the right people to help with the Mexico problem.”

Simon recalled sugar prices fell sharply in the mid-1970s after several good years, but the market rebounded. “I’m confident the best years are ahead of us.”

Jim Weisemeyer, a consultant from Informa Economics, said farm equipment sales and farm land values have dropped. “Now we’ve got the makings of a downturn.”

Lower grain prices are inevitable, he said, but the national economy is showing signs it will improve through the coming year.

During his talk, word came that the U.S. Senate had approved the farm bill, resulting in applause from the audience.

Weisemeyer said the sugar industry maintains a unified force on Capitol Hill, regardless whether the farm bill is up for consideration. “You’re politically engaged, and you’re a solid group both in Washington and on the grass roots level,” he said.

He said the sugar industry needs to continue its research efforts. “Make sure you put the money into your industry because that is the building block for your future.”

Bruce Schultz

2/7/2014 2:24:21 AM
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