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Prescribed burns save sugarcane industry $120 million

News Release Distributed 11/18/14

BATON ROUGE, La. – Sugarcane is one of Louisiana’s most valuable agricultural commodities, contributing about $771 million to the economy in 2013. However, the state’s sugar industry would be about $120 million less profitable without the use of one age-old tool – fire – according to LSU AgCenter researchers.

Sugarcane farmers conduct prescribed burns to remove plant trash, the dead leaves and tops that do not contain any sucrose, said LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Kenneth Gravois.

“The more trash removed by burning prior to harvest, the faster machines can harvest,” Gravois said.

Less trash also means lower transportation and processing costs, and better sugar recovery and stubble crop yields. Each of those benefits has an economic value that is presented in a recent AgCenter report, which is available on the AgCenter website.

Without burning, trucks would have to haul about 95,000 more loads of harvested cane to mills, which would cost about $14 million, said AgCenter economist Mike Salassi. Lighter plant trash material makes it easier for trucks to stay below maximum trailer weights.

Processing a lot of leaves and trash also hinders sugar recovery at the mill. Salassi said it would cost about $6 million to grind the additional material and cause a nearly-$30 million loss in revenue due to lower sugar recovery and quality.

“Every 1 percent of trash reduces sugar recovery by 3 pounds per ton,” he said.

Leaving trash in the field after harvesting also has an economic downside. Trash can cause lower yields for subsequent stubble crops, costing about $70 million, Salassi said.

Sugarcane harvest began in late September and will run through early January. Farmers will burn throughout this time when conditions are appropriate.

However, only about 75 percent of sugarcane acreage is burned every year, Gravois said. Sugarcane is a perennial crop that allows three to four annual harvests from a single planting. The last crop harvested in the crop cycle is often not burned but plowed out to be replanted the following year.

Because it is important for farmers to conduct burns properly, the LSU AgCenter partners with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry to offer a Certified Burn Manager Program. The program, which launched in 2000, emphasizes precautions growers should take when burning, Gravois said. The AgCenter conducts a two-hour session on topics like how to read a fire weather report and how to estimate smoke and ash movement. Burners also learn to be mindful of their surroundings, especially subdivisions, schools and hospitals.

LDAF is responsible for certification, which is good for five years. When that time is up, growers can visit their parish extension office to watch a refresher DVD and renew their certification for another five years.

Olivia McClure

Last Updated: 11/18/2014 9:13:06 AM

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