Season effects on the potential biomass and sucrose accumulation of some commercial cultivars of sugarcane.
An experiment was conducted at Pongola (27°24´S, 31°25´E; 308m altitude) in South Africa to study the effects of season on growth and potential biomass and sucrose yields on nine commercial sugarcane cultivars. The treatments that were the focus in this study consisted of the cultivars NCo376, N25 and N26 ratooned in March, April, May, August and December. The crops were well fertilized and kept free of weeds and diseases. Irrigation applications were scheduled with a computer programme to keep the crops free of stress at all times. Shoot populations were counted regularly to study shoot density dynamics. Leaf appearance rates, sizes, numbers and senescence were measured to study the development of green leaf area. Green foliage, dead trash and stalk mass were measured at 4, 8, 10, 11 and 12 months in each of the starting times and also at 13 months in the March, April and May ratoon crops. The fibre, sucrose and non-sucrose content of stalks were determined on these harvesting occasions. Yields were calculated in terms of individual shoots and area (m‾²). The fraction of PAR intercepted by the developing canopies was measured until full canopy and daily intercepted solar radiation was interpolated for the entire crop. An automated meteorological station adjacent to the experiment site provided daily weather data. Shoot densities were described by thermal time, however, average peak shoot densities were lowest in the May ratoon (31.8 m‾²) and highest in the December ratoon (48.7 m‾²). Shoot senescence was most rapid in August and December ratoons. At the final harvest shoot densities were highest in the March, April and May ratoon (14.8 to 14.2 m‾²) crops. NCo376 (16.4 m‾²) and N25 (13.6 m‾²) had higher final shoot densities than N26 (10.5 m‾²). Leaf appearance rate was also well described by thermal time, however the first twelve leaves took longer to appear in crops started in December i.e. the first phyllochron was longer (109.5°C d) than in crops started at other times (80.4 to 94.5°C d). Leaves produced during the early stages of December and August ratoon crops were larger (e.g leaf number 13 of N26 was 443 to 378 cm²) than in other crops. April and May ratoon crops produced much smaller leaves (e.g leaf number 9 of N26 was 170 to 105 cm²). Leaf senescence was slower in April and May ratoon crops (0.36 to 0.46 leaves per 100°C d) than in March (0.51 to 0.59 leaves per 100°C d) or August and December ratoon crops (0.60 to 0.68 leaves per 100°C d). December ratoon crops produced very high green leaf area indexes (LAI) (>7.0) at the age of four months; all other crops had lower LAI (3.3 to 6.0) and most peaked later (8 to 11 months of age). The LAI of N25 peaked at the age of 8 months while NCo376 and N26 peaked when 10 to 11 months old. Seasonal fraction of solar radiation intercepted was high in the March ratoon crops (0.84) and declined to 0.63 in the May ratoon crops and was highest in the December ratoon crop (0.88). N26 intercepted lower fractions of PAR than NCo376 and N25, particularly in the May and August ratoon crops. Biomass accumulation, although initially slow, tended to be linear in the March, April and May ratoon crops in relation to intercepted radiation. In August and particularly in the December ratoons biomass accumulation was initially rapid, and RUEs were high (2.65 g MJ‾¹ at 114 days in the December ratoon crops). However, biomass accumulation slowed when these December ratoon crops experienced winter. Low growth rates after winter, as well as low shoot densities resulted in December ratoon crops having produced significantly lower above-ground biomass yields (4 886 g m‾² at the age of 12 months) than March, April and May ratoon crops (6 760 to 5 715 gm‾² at the age of 12 months). The December ratoon crops responded poorly to the better growing conditions in spring and second summer and accumulated little biomass after winter. N26 shoots grew rapidly during the first 6-8 months of the December ratoon crop and it yielded better than NCo376 and N25 at harvesting (biomass yields were 5.8 and 13.3% higher at the age of 12 months, respectively). April ratoons produced significantly higher biomass yields (6 760 g m‾²) than March, August and December ratoons. May ratoon crops produced the highest cane fresh mass yields (18 151 g m‾²) and April, May and August ratoons produced significantly higher sucrose yields than March and December ratoons. The highest sucrose yield was produced by the April ratoon crop of N26 (2 385 g m‾²). On average, across the five ratoon dates, NCo376, N25 and N26 produced similar sucrose yields (1 902 to 1 959 g m‾²). Foliage production was severely limited during winter while sucrose accumulation was less affected by the low temperatures, resulting in accumulation of sucrose in the top sections of the culm. Low temperatures slowed the development of canopies in March, April and May ratoon crops, but these crops were able to recover their growth rates and produced high biomass and sucrose yields at the age of 12 months. The December ratoons experienced low winter temperatures (<12°C) when they had already accumulated relatively high yields and became moribund during winter. They were unable to accumulate any significant amounts of biomass during final four months before the final harvest at the age of 12 months. NCo376, N25 and N26 all yielded poorly in the December ratoon crop. However, there are cultivars that appear to be less sensitive to the low winters and are able to yield relatively well when they are ratooned in December. Sucrose yields of March, April and May ratoons were increased substantially (10.6 to 22.7%) by harvesting at the age of 13 months rather than at the age of 12 months. The poor growth of December ratoon crops after winter is possibly due to the recently revealed feedback signaling by high sugar levels induced by low temperatures on photosynthesis. The incorporation of the effects of low temperature and the feedback signaling with the objective of better simulating yields of December ratoons is a proposed study at the South African Sugarcane Research Institute. Annual mean sucrose yields of NCo376, N25 and N26 crops were estimated to be 17% higher in March than in December ratoons. The suggested short term remedy therefore of the poor December yields is to shift milling seasons to include March and exclude December harvested crops in the northern irrigated regions. March crops grow vigorously during the months close to harvesting and therefore have lower levels of sucrose content which can be corrected with chemical ripeners.
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