Louisiana rice farmers are harvesting near-record yields after years of poor weather held yields down.

LSU AgCenter rice specialist Johnny Saichuk said early yields were extremely good, although yields in south Louisiana have started to drop off as harvesting progressed.

“We were off to a record start, but it may not continue,” Saichuk said, pointing out that rice harvest in south Louisiana is about 80 percent complete. Harvest in northeast Louisiana will begin in early September.

Saichuk said the good crop can be attributed to favorable weather early — before tropical storm Allison dumped large amounts of rain on south Louisiana. The early weather patterns allowed timely planting, and the dry and moderate (not hot) weather helped the crop get off to a good start.

Current weather patterns of regular, almost-daily rains are slowing down harvesting, however, and the crop still in the field is losing quality, Saichuk added.

With an early start to the harvest, Saichuk sees the potential for record acreage harvested for a second crop.

A rice plant has the ability to regrow after harvest and produce more grain, Saichuk explained. But for a second crop to reach maturity in Louisiana, the first crop must be harvested by Aug. 15.

“Along with early harvesting, a second crop requires clean fields with no weed pressures as well as dry fields so harvest machinery doesn't leave deep ruts in the field during the first harvest,” Saichuk said. “You also need a first crop that was pretty healthy.

“Lately, rain has made harvest difficult and affected potential second-crop production,” Saichuk added.

Early estimates of rice acreage from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Administration indicate increased acreage this year over last.

“There's a good indication that the final rice acreage in Louisiana will total in the neighborhood of 540,000 to 550,000 acres,” Saichuk said.

The LSU AgCenter estimated 2000 Louisiana rice acreage at about 478,000 acres, while 1999 acreage was nearly 610,000 acres. Last year's rice acreage was down because of drought and saltwater intrusion into irrigation water in coastal areas.

Rice is a major crop in Louisiana, contributing nearly $199 million to the state economy last year and more than $297 million in 1999.