Economic Significance of the LSU AgCenter Plant Breeding Program for Louisiana

Michael Deliberto, Fannin, J. Matthew "Matt"

Michael Deliberto and J. Matthew Fannin

The LSU AgCenter plays a critical role in the breeding and development of new rice, sugarcane, sweet potato, wheat and oat varieties. Seven out of every 10 fields of sugarcane and rice in Louisiana are cultivated with AgCenter-developed varieties. For sweet potatoes, that figure jumps to more than nine out of 10. Although commercialized breeding programs dominate variety development for corn, cotton and soybeans, AgCenter researchers and specialists test these varieties extensively for their suitability to grow in Louisiana.

Investment in the AgCenter’s plant breeding programs is born out of necessity because varieties fall out of favor as new pests and diseases emerge. Improved variety traits provide economic value and stability for Louisiana’s agricultural industry.

Rice and Herbicide-Tolerant Technology

The LSU AgCenter H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station in Crowley develops new rice varieties based on yield potential, milling quality, disease resistance and desired production characteristics. In the late 1990s, AgCenter scientists developed Clearfield rice varieties from a natural mutation in the breeding process. The Clearfield lines are resistant to Clearfield herbicide, which allows growers to chemically control field infestations of red rice, which is a noxious weed that had impeded Louisiana rice production for decades.

A secondary benefit that resulted from this variety development was in streamlining the production practice for how Clearfield rice is planted. Drill seeding into the ground was adopted as an alternative planting method to aerial water seeding. Today, 43% of Louisiana’s rice acreage is Clearfield. Various Clearfield varieties are also planted in Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, Mississippi, Florida and other countries.

The AgCenter’s herbicide-tolerant rice technology contributes up to $95 million in annual management cost savings for rice producers. In addition, by improving the quality of long grain rice in the southern U.S., the technology has created an estimated economic benefit to the overall industry, beyond farm management cost savings, in excess of $155 million since 2009.

Undoubtedly, rice variety research has a tremendous economic impact in Louisiana. In the mid-1990s, average rice yield per acre in Louisiana was 4,600 pounds, as reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2007, the average yield exceeded 6,100 pounds per acre and improved to 7,000 pounds per acre in 2013. Given current market conditions for rice, this yield increase translates into a revenue increase of nearly $30 per acre (assuming a $12 per hundredweight rice price).

This increase in productivity is due to both breeding research and agronomic research conducted by AgCenter scientists. Rice varieties with desirable traits that mature quickly allow growers to harvest a second crop each year in a highly efficient, less resource intensive manner. Shorter growing cycles also lend protection against bad weather events. A fast-maturing rice variety can be planted in March and harvested ahead of peak hurricane season in mid-August.

Over the previous two crop years, the farm gate value for rice in Louisiana ranged between $295 million to $380 million. If value-added activities, such as milling, are taken into account, that number jumps by an additional $126.4 million for a total yearly economic contribution to the state that can exceed $506 million. Rice consistently ranks in the top five highest valued plant commodities (excluding forestry) produced in the state in a given year.

High Value of Sugarcane

Sugar occupies a vital place in the agricultural landscape of Louisiana. To maintain sugar’s footprint in Louisiana, researchers at the LSU AgCenter Sugar Research Station, in St. Gabriel, work in association with the USDA Agricultural Research Service Sugarcane Research Unit in Houma and the American Sugar Cane League in Thibodaux to develop new sugarcane varieties.

Advancements in cultivation and pest management practices contribute to the longevity of a variety’s time in production. Development of a new sugarcane variety can take up to 12 years. Through this selection process, old parents are used in new combinations, and new parents with better genetic contributions are added, which, breeders hope, lead to improvements.

Over the past 30 years, the sugarcane yield per acre has nearly doubled in Louisiana. In 1990, average yield was 20.6 tons per acre. In 2018, the average yield set a record at 35.3 tons per acre. The increase in the value of sugarcane production in Louisiana can be attributed to breeding research and the adoption of advanced production practices that collectively improve economic efficiency. For example, farm output is measured by the pounds of sugar produced per farm acre. Over the past three decades, average sugar yields in Louisiana have increased from 4,500 pounds to a high of 7,700 pounds per acre as reported by the USDA. Under current market conditions, this growth in yield translates into an increase in gross revenue of more than $800 per acre (assuming a $0.255 per pound raw sugar price) or $489 per farm acre after processing charges are considered.

Because sugarcane is a perennial crop (successive crops are possible from previously harvested sugarcane acres and are known as rattoon), another benefit is the prolonged stubbling (or rattoon) ability that make sugarcane varieties economically feasible to remain in production on the farm. The average crop cycle length has increased on some farms from three years to as high as six years.

The gross farm value of the 2018 sugarcane crop in Louisiana was $600.1 million for both sugar and molasses (a byproduct of sugar extraction). The 2018 crop year was a record-setting year for the Louisiana sugarcane industry in terms of value. This gross farm value represents 60% of the value of the sugar and 50% of the value of molasses produced, as revenues are split between tenant producers and landowners. The remaining percentages are for raw sugar processing, which amounted to $408.6 million. Therefore, the total value of the sugarcane crop to Louisiana producers, processors and landlords at the first processing level was $1.009 billion. Outside of forestry, sugarcane is the highest valued plant commodity cultivated in the state.

Louisiana Sweet Potatoes Dominate

Louisiana produces three major varieties of sweet potatoes: Beauregard, Orleans and Bayou Belle. LSU AgCenter sweet potato varieties are widely prevalent and dominate plantings in both Arkansas and Mississippi as well as in several countries in Central America and Australia. Like sugarcane, sweet potatoes are grown commercially from cuttings rather than seeds. No commercial companies develop new sweet potato varieties in the U.S, making university programs the sole source of new varieties. The AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase is the only research station in the United States solely devoted to sweet potato research and development. Breeders identify desired plant characteristics such as yield, shape, disease resistance and sprouting ability. Growers typically retain a portion of the previous year’s harvest for seed potatoes. However, succeeding generations can, over time, become susceptible to disease. Therefore, growers must purchase “clean seed” from the AgCenter to replenish farm seed stock.

Louisiana’s total gross farm gate value for sweet potatoes over the previous two crop years is estimated to range between $47 to $54 million. When value-added activities for sweet potatoes of $40.49 million are considered, the total value of sweet potato production was in the neighborhood of $94.48 million for Louisiana. The economic value from sweet potato production in Louisiana ranks in the top ten for all plant commodities.

Wheat and Oats Remain Important Alternative Crops

Wheat provides Louisiana growers a cropping alternative in the spring and early summer, and wheat varieties developed must be resistant to diseases encountered in Louisiana’s subtropical climate. In addition to generating a revenue stream, wheat also contributes to conservation tillage and provides a winter cover crop, which promotes soil health. Although wheat seed may be marketed by a commercial company, growers largely depend on university breeding programs. These public breeding programs award a variety license to a commercial company for producing, processing and distribution channels for wheat seed.

No commercial breeding program exists for oats in the U.S. In the southern Gulf Coast Region, the LSU AgCenter is one of only two university breeding programs that produce oats for pastures, horse feed and wildlife food plots.

Wheat production in Louisiana has increased significantly over the past 30 years, with the average per acre yield increasing from 33 to 65 bushels as reported by the USDA. This equates to a value of $160 per acre (assuming a $5 per bushel price). However, wheat acreage remains under 20,000 acres as the economic profitability of wheat in most years does not compete with alternative crops such as corn and soybeans.

Wheat’s gross farm gate value in Louisiana over the previous two crop years ranged between $2.6 million and $3.3 million. Valued-added activities contributed an additional $450,000 in economic activity, bringing wheat’s total impact in Louisiana to upwards of $3.75 million. The gross farm gate value of oat production in Louisiana is $185,642.

Volatility in Wheat Acreage

Harvested wheat acres in Louisiana were estimated at 208,315 acres for the 2011 crop year. The higher prices received for wheat during 2011 compared to 2010 were the primary factor in this large increase in wheat acreage planted and harvested in the state. During 2011, yields for wheat averaged 64 bushels per acre, which was 16% higher than the average yield reported in 2010.

The harvested wheat acreage in Louisiana for the 2010 crop year was estimated at 108,294 acres (average yield of 55 bushels per acre). 2009 harvested acreage was more than 185,000. The volatility in acreage is primarily the result of variable feed grain prices.

Michael Deliberto is an associate professor and J. Matthew Fannin is the William H. Alexander Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness.

(This article appears in the spring 2021 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

Three people in rice field harvesting rice and collected samples for research.

Adam Famoso, bottom left, rice researcher, is collecting samples of rice as part of his rice breeding program at the LSU AgCenter H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station. A total of 58 new rice varieties have been developed at this station since it was first established in 1909. Rice variety research has had a tremendous economic impact in Louisiana. In the mid-1990s, average rice yield per acre in Louisiana was 4,600 pounds, as reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2007, the average yield exceeded 6,100 pounds per acre and improved to 7,000 pounds per acre in 2013. Given current market conditions for rice, this yield increase translates into a revenue increase of nearly $30 per acre. Photo by Bruce Schultz

6/3/2021 5:59:34 PM
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