With Mississippi's corn crop already lodged and leaning, Hurricane Katrina went ahead and shoved much of it to the ground, according to Extension specialists.

The hurricane, which may have been the worst ever to hit the United States, also took down half of Mississippi's rice crop and caused some damage to the same crop in Arkansas.

Efforts to reach Extension specialists in Louisiana have proved largely unsuccessful due to the communications problems in that state. Crops in northern Louisiana and in Arkansas are thought to have escaped serious damage.

“We've got bunches of flat corn,” said Erick Larsen, Mississippi Extension corn specialist from his office at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss., on Sept. 1. “Almost all the corn is lodged to some degree, a lot of it badly.”

Prior to the hurricane, about 30 percent of the state's corn crop had been harvested. The vast majority of corn harvested was in the Mississippi Delta — particularly the south Delta.

“I was hearing some really good yields before Katrina. We were on pace to set a new record yield for the state.

“We've planted about 365,000 acres of corn and, prior to Katrina, had harvested 110,000 of that. That means 255,000 acres were in the field when the hurricane hit.”

Because of “very shaky” communication lines south of I-20, Larsen doesn't have “a crystal-clear picture of what's left. I spoke to an Extension agent in south Mississippi on Aug. 31. South of I-20, he didn't think more than 10 to 15 percent of the crop had been harvested before the hurricane. That's unfortunate and means that whole area's corn was exposed to major winds — some in excess of 100 miles per hour. I suspect most of that corn is flat on the ground.”

Corn was lodging even before Hurricane Katrina. Earlier this season, Mississippi's eastern counties experienced considerable damage from Hurricane Dennis. Then, during the last two weeks of July several strong storms rolled through the state causing much lodging. “A lot of corn was leaning and in marginal shape.”

Larsen said there are few remedies and little advice he can offer for those facing flattened cornfields. “There's just not a lot we can do. I'm sure producers will salvage what they can.

“The only things they might look at are after-market attachments to put on headers. Those may help pick up the downed corn a little easier.”

Whatever harvesting methods are used, producers will end up spending a lot more time and money getting the crop in. Larsen said harvest progress will now be slowed by at least five times the norm.

“In turn, that will cause real problems because it will back harvest up for all the state's crops. Harvest expenses will likely double and, conservatively, 10 percent of the crop will be left in the field. Most likely, more of the crop will be left on the ground — especially if it's a wet fall. It's too early to tell.

“I think losses for the corn crop alone will exceed $20 million. And that's a conservative estimate. I figure we'll lose in the neighborhood of 20 bushels per acre in yield. On top of that, I figure harvest expenses will at least double. That's $45 per acre in lost corn and another $30 per acre in harvest expenses.

“Most importantly, though, is it will take a long, long time to get this crop out of the field. The headaches may just be starting.”

In Mississippi, rice crop evaluations in Hurricane Katrina's wake have also been sobering. “It's tough here,” said Nathan Buehring, Mississippi Extension rice specialist on Sept. 1. “There's between 40 and 50 percent of our rice crop on the ground. And we're lucky it isn't a higher percentage. We'd harvested around 2 percent of our crop before Katrina hit.”

Some Mississippi rice producers have 80 to 90 percent of their rice down. As a result, Buehring expects yields will drop at least 20 percent.

“The lucky ones have only a small percentage down. I don't think anyone fully escaped. To be honest, I'm surprised so much rice is still standing. Some areas had winds of 70 miles per hour. And for 12 hours straight winds across much of the state were gusting at 50 miles per hour. It was a storm unlike any I've ever been through, and I wasn't even on the coast where they took the brunt.”

Beuhring's biggest concern is what the downed rice means for the length of harvest. Harvesting downed rice means “triple the time, triple the diesel fuel and labor expenses. This is going to be an even more expensive crop for the growers. It's trouble when you go from cutting 40 acres per day to 10 or 15.

“Who knows what diesel costs will be in the coming weeks? On fuel use, combines aren't the only worry. Growers still have to haul the crop to a bin or mill. And they're already paying double for fuel what they paid last year.”

Even before Katrina hit, a lot of money had been spent on the rice crop. “The dry conditions earlier in the season meant money was spent trying to get the crop growing well. Then, growers spent a lot of money on herbicides. Now, with all this, a little over $3 per bushel won't pay the bills.”

Prior to the hurricane, Mississippi's rice harvest was already a week to 10 days later than last year. Buehring hopes the weather is dry for the rest of the harvest.

“We're going to have to rut some of this crop out. Getting the fields back in shape for the next crop is going to mean even more fuel costs.”

Hurricane Katrina dropped some rice in Arkansas. “I'm not sure how much to blame on the hurricane,” said Chuck Wilson, Arkansas Extension rice specialist. “Over the last part of August, we've had a lot of rice downed, some of it the Saturday before the hurricane. A big storm came through that did some damage.”

Wilson suspects the hurricane knocked down 15,000 to 20,000 acres — about 1 percent of Arkansas' acreage. But there's much more lodged rice than that, particularly in the eastern counties.

“Even on the Grand Prairie there's a lot of rice down. All I can tell producers is to slow down and drop the header.”

Downed rice is a headache but not uncommon. “It takes about three times as long to cut a field. If you take your time, you can minimize losses. Get in a hurry, though, and yields will definitely be cut more.

“Generally speaking, when harvesting downed rice, you can expect an average yield loss of 10 to 20 percent. It tends to shatter badly and producers can't get the grain.”

Because harvest is so slow, much more straw is run through harvesting machines. That means more wear and tear on the equipment. “It's bad because most of the people I've spoken with have good yields,” said Wilson. “Compared to last year, they're off 5 percent or so. Even with this downed rice, we've still got a chance for a pretty good crop, though. We could still end up at 5 or 6 bushels off last year's record.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com