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Sugarcane harvest BMPs: New residue management modifications

By By Jerry Davenport, LDAF Office of Soil & Water Conservation
June 18, 2024
News article

The St. Martin Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) hosted a Sugar Cane Best Management Practice (BMP) field day on May 30 with the help of the Lafayette and Iberia SWCDs, Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) Office of Soil and Water Conservation, LSU AgCenter, and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Speakers from each partner agency provided updates on BMP cost-share opportunities through EPA’s Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program, current soil fertility research, soil health analysis methods and interpretation, and the use of cane mill filter press mud as a soil amendment within agricultural operations.

Following the indoor presentation, participants visited field test plots, viewed BMP installations, and spoke field-side with Mr. Mike Melancon (St Martin SWCD cooperator) and a representative from Progressive Tractor and Implement Co. about recent advances in development and installation of prototypical residue management modifications on cane harvesters. These modifications have already proven to aid significantly in reduction of row damage and offsite mud tracking during harvest, improved water quality, improved soil organic matter, and reduced soil erosion.

When asked about the benefits these field days provide, Mr. Melancon stated, “Today’s BMP field day was very well attended by both researchers and farmers. The topic of sugarcane residue management by modifying the harvester has a lot of interest.” Some of the advantages from this new modification are still becoming evident, but Mr. Melancon has already seen the following benefits in his fields:

  • For starters, cane harvesting equipment, including the tractors and carts that follow the combine, do not sink nearly as much under muddy conditions, so fields are in better condition after harvest.

  • The harvester tracks over a leaf residue (trash) mat that keeps the combine tracks from placing mud on top of the adjacent uncut cane row. This was part of the original intent of the modification.

  • Only a small amount of leaf residue remains on row tops after harvest, so there is no immediate need to burn residue.

  • Significantly less mud gets tracked onto public roads when going between fields.

  • The residue left in the furrow decomposes relatively quickly due to improved soil contact.

While Mr. Melancon is still working out some of the specifics of how to best utilize this modification with other practices, he has been able to move to no till on at least 40% of his 2024 sugarcane crop thanks to its benefits.

Dr. Brenda Tubana, an LSU AgCenter Professor in the School of Plant, Environmental, and Soil Sciences, spoke at length about her ongoing crop residue management and soil health research. Dr. Tubana explained that sugarcane harvesting causes significant disturbances to soil, due to operations of heavy equipment, in concert with the many rainfall events that are typical of harvest time in Louisiana. Her current study in Henderson and Loreauville was initiated in 2022 to evaluate the potential of a modified sugarcane harvester to better manage post-harvest residue and reduce disturbances on soil surface.

”Unburned residue can become a buffer layer that protects the soil surface on the furrow from rail traffic,” she explains. “The harvester collects and redirects the residue in the furrow which becomes a cushion layer minimizing the contact between the soil and tracks. Our cooperator on this project, Mr. Oubre, has seen the benefits of using the modified harvester in his fields.” Dr. Tubana envisions that the long-term use of modified sugarcane harvesters will have the following positive outcomes:

  • Provide protection to the soil surface, preventing soil loss from within the furrow;

  • Retain nitrogen and sulfur which is otherwise be lost in soil erosion, dilution of rainfall runoff, and burning;

  • Improve soil organic matter content/soil health; and

  • Reduce the runoff of nutrients and sediment, improving water quality, drainage, and sustainability.

“The study is collecting data that will validate these benefits, all of which can protect soil health, sustain sugarcane productivity, and reduce the environmental footprint of sugarcane production,” says Dr. Tubana.

Early results indicate there’s reason to be hopeful about new technology. Michael Schooler, Ag Nonpoint Source Management Programs Coordinator for LDAF, shared this excitement, saying “In addition to allowing the producer to reduce the number of trips across the field, leaving this residue in the field, and allowing it to be placed in a precise location, could improve water quality and infiltration, and maintain the soil moisture during dryer times.”

Hats-off to Mr. Melancon and Mr. Oubre for devising this very useful innovation, and for letting us help to share this information as it develops. Thank you to our partners, and all who joined us! Learn more about LDAF’s Office of Soil and Water Conservation at www.ldaf.la.gov/land/conservation.

This story appeared in the June 13 issue of the Louisiana Market Bulletin .

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