Over Easter weekend, freezing, or near freezing, temperatures swept through the Mid-South. While a proper damage assessment hadn't been done by press time, several Extension specialists say it could have been worse.
“It didn't get quite as cold as was predicted although it did get into the 30s one night,” says Johnny Saichuk, LSU AgCenter rice specialist. “Yesterday morning (April 8) was in the lower 40s. This morning is about the same.
“We were under a lot of cloud cover for much of the weekend and got some rain. It's overcast again this morning.
“We'll get out in the fields and begin assessing any damage today. We should have a preliminary idea of what's happened in a few days, but we probably won't know of the full scope of damage, if there is any, until the end of the week.”
Jason Kelley, Arkansas Extension corn and wheat specialist, says his phone rang frequently over the weekend.
“Farmers were worried and it definitely got cold enough to worry me, too. Without having seen much yet, I have to believe this will cause some trouble for our wheat. Most research says boot-stage wheat can handle down to 28 degrees for two hours. Once the crop gets into heading, theoretically it can handle only 30 degrees for two hours.”
Kelley spoke to a handful of south Arkansas growers who said temperatures dipped to 30 or 31. “I know it got down to around 27 in Newport (north-central Arkansas) on Friday night and it was even colder on Saturday.
“It's really too early to say what effect the cold had. We'll go out and dissect some heads and see if they've been hurt. We need a few days to get a fuller picture. I certainly don't want to jump the gun and say there's widespread freeze damage.”
Kelley is “marginally less worried” about the state's corn crop but is still concerned. “I got a call from a grower who said his corn was standing (before the cold weather) and has now fallen over. That points to a pretty hard freeze. Since the growing point for corn should still be below the soil, hopefully such fields will be able to grow out of it.”
Before the cold snap hit the Mid-South, growers had taken advantage of a warm, dry March.
“As of last Friday (March 30), we were about 17 percent planted on 1.1 million acres,” said Chuck Wilson, Arkansas Extension rice specialist. “I'm guessing 10 to 12 percent has emerged.”
With cold weather bearing down, Wilson said the downside of such a warm March is obvious. “At this point, the growing point is below the ground and the soil can act as an insulator against any freeze.
“If one hits, the rice plant tops will be sensitive and may be discolored or burned, depending on how cold it gets. The plants may also be stunted until warmer weather returns. Hopefully, there won't be a freeze much below the soil line and the growing points will be safe.”
Somewhat prophetically, during an interview a week earlier, Wilson played up the research opportunities of such massive early-season planting but fretted over chances of a freeze. “We've just got to get past the cold snap at Easter that can occur. As long as we get past the frost window, the crop should be fine.
“Any freeze will hurt some farmers. But that's not a risk that's outside the norm — it's just on a new level with all the early rice this year. Think about this: rice planting in Arkansas began in earnest about March 12 and hasn't slowed down since. I doubt that's ever been the case before.”
Even in south Louisiana, freeze concerns abounded. “As far south as Lafayette, where I am, the prediction is for a near-record low,” said Saichuk just before the cold front moved in. “The record was set in 1926 at 35 degrees. We're expecting to approach that if not break it.”
As in Arkansas, much of Louisiana's rice crop has been planted and emerged. The rice in the greatest danger from a freeze was in the process of germinating or just emerging from the ground.
“The rice that's at three- or four-leaf can probably be blanketed with water and should be fine. We've had rice survive freezing temperatures doing that.”
Saichuk said rice that was drilled into dry soil and hadn't yet germinated was “the safest of the bunch. Farmers should leave it alone and after it warms back up, flush the fields and it'll be fine.
“What I believe farmers should do — and this is a judgment call — is to put some water on rice fields, particularly in good, level fields.”
Usually doing so is a bad idea. “But if it gets cold like we're expecting, the water will act like a thermal flywheel. It'll store energy better than if we leave the rice exposed.
“Putting water on rice isn't a definite but my gut feeling is that's what should be done. If nothing else, wet soils will turn darker and absorb more heat. If I had rice fields, that's what I'd be doing.”
Wilson said his major concern was for north Arkansas where forecasts were in the low 20s. “It's one thing to get down to 30. It's another to dip to the low 20s.”
He also said if seed had just been planted and not emerged, there was much less to worry about. “It's the fields that have emerged that are in most jeopardy. More than any of it, I'm worried about the rice that's just spiking through, that's just broken the soil.”
Saichuk said he's never seen a situation “where we're abnormally warm and then abnormally cold. That's definitely different. “I remember an April Fools Day a few years ago when it snowed in Shreveport. But that front was very quick and didn't cause sustained low temperatures.
“I do remember guys in Allen Parish telling me they had to break ice in rice fields and the crop did fine. Back when Allen Parish used to have a lot of rice, it was well-known for planting rice extremely early.”
With Cheniere and Clearfield 131 banned from Mid-South fields in 2007, seed availability was already poor. Any freeze damage and replanting could leave farmers with few choices.
“There does seem to be enough rice seed,” said Wilson. “The amount isn't a problem — it's having enough of the varieties farmers want. If any Clearfield 161 fields need to be replanted, you're probably out of luck.”
Saichuk said he's spoken with farmers at length about the seed situation. “Some tell me they're sitting on a bit of seed to see what happens this weekend. They'll see if they need to use it to replant or plant additional rice acreage. We can't lose stands or our rice acreage will go to other crops.
“One good thing is some varieties have much better cold tolerance than others. If I had planted Clearfield 161 or Cypress, I'd be much less concerned.”
And any rice that isn't killed by freeze, should recover.
“If the rice comes through this, it will be damaged but it'll come back and be fine. Rice is resilient.”