Following several weeks of decent November weather, the Mid-South harvest has finally moved into the home stretch. If the track stays dry — hardly a given this fall — many growers hope to cross the finish line by Thanksgiving.
“We’re about 95 percent harvested on cotton, about 75 to 80 percent on soybeans, and about 80 percent done with rice,” says Chuck Farr, a consultant based in Crawfordsville in east Arkansas. “Compared to where we were a few weeks ago, we’re in fairly decent shape.”
A leap across the Mississippi River in Tennessee, Chris Main says the latest USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) report showed Tennessee “right at 60 percent harvested. That’s close — it might be at 65 to 70 percent. We’ve made really good progress over the last couple of weeks before the (Nov. 16) rains.”
Main, Tennessee Extension cotton specialist, is finding that cotton yields are “based more on planting dates than anything else. We really had three crops, this year.”
The first crop was planted April 20 to May 1. That cotton “was opening up when the rains began and took it on the chin. There was a lot of hard-lock. Those yields are in the neighborhood of 700 to 900 pounds.”
The second crop was planted between May 10 and May 25. Much of that crop “did really well. Growers are seeing yields from 900 pounds to 1,300 pounds.”
The last crop, planted up until June 8, ran out of heat units. Yields for Tennessee cotton planted in late May and early June “are back at 700 to 800 pounds.”
Considering the multitude of rains and obstacles in September and October, Main says “everyone seems pleasantly surprised at the yields.”
What about grades?
“The latest report says that out of all the bales that have gone through, about 92 percent are ‘tenderable to fill a futures contract.’ That’s good news. Micronaire is running in the base to premium range; we’re not seeing any really high or low swing. Strength appears to be okay and length is fine. There aren’t any big discount flags flying, right now. It’s base-grade cotton.”
Back in east Arkansas the cotton crop “is short,” says Farr. “This is a fair, at best, cotton crop: 600 to 800 pounds per acre. That’s roughly a bale off the normal yield.”
As for soybeans, “once we got out of the early-plant Group 4s and into some Group 5s — especially the later-planted beans — the quality came back to us. If we can get another four or five days, another run of decent weather, a lot of guys in this area will be done by Thanksgiving.”
Wheat Not a lot of wheat has been planted, says Farr. “We planted a little. But, really, as the market went by the wayside, so did the wheat acres.”
This doesn’t surprise Jason Kelley, Arkansas Extension corn and wheat specialist. “The mid-November USDA report says Arkansas is at 52 percent planted on wheat. Normally, we’d be 80 percent-plus. Last year, for example, we were already at 86 percent. We’re way behind the norm.
“Our wheat acres will be down quite a bit. Last year, we had a bit over 400,000 acres. That was a drop from the year before when we had 1 million wheat acres. This year, maybe we’ll have 150,000 acres. Like I said, we’re going to drop a lot of acres again.”
But even if producers wanted to plant wheat this year, there hasn’t been much of an opportunity. “It rained all September and October,” says Kelley. “A lot of areas in Arkansas got 15 inches of rain in October. That’s so much rain, when would you plant wheat? And in the meantime, growers have been trying to harvest all the other crops.”
In a good, dry harvest season, “beans will come off easily,” says Kelley. “Some growers will just go into no-till fields, drop in and begin planting wheat. But this year, we’ve tracked fields up and they’re still wet and that isn’t an option.
“And to top all that off, the clock is ticking for anyone wanting to plant wheat. It’s getting late. If seed isn’t planted before Thanksgiving, I think folks will hold off. I don’t think they’ll plant much later than that.”
Backing up Kelley’s views on shrinking wheat acreage is Brent Griffin, Prairie County Extension staff chair. Griffin says the central Arkansas county “usually plants 30,000 to 35,000 wheat acres. Last year, we hit right at 20,000 acres. This year, if there’s 5,000 acres in the county we’ll be very lucky.”
Three weeks ago, things looked “much shakier” for harvest in Prairie County, says Griffin. “Now, thank goodness, we’re close to having all our harvesting done.
“A month ago, nearly 30 percent of our rice was still in the field. Farmers mudded it out — and tore up some fields in the process. Yields dropped with the planting date. The earliest-planted rice had the best yield. The middle-plantings did well but were 15 bushels off the first planting. The last rice cut was anywhere from 25 to 40 bushels in comparison to the rice planted at the proper time. Whole farms, countywide, will average from 135 bushels to 165 to 170 bushels, dry.”
As for quality, rice held up better than other crops. Griffin says milling did begin to drop later in harvest — “into the 50s, triggering some discounts. Early on, rice was milling in the upper 60s. Rice will be the saving grace for a lot of our farmers.”
Meanwhile, some soybeans in the White River and Cache River bottoms remain underwater with the water dropping slowly.
“I’m not sure if those will be cut, or not. They may be too deteriorated to salvage,” says Griffin. “We were off on our estimates for the later-planted Group 5s. They looked like they’d be a bumper crop. But they’ve turned out to be only average. In the field, those Group 5s looked 20 bushels better than they turned out to be.”
The Group 5s “went vegetative and put on a lot of pods. I’m not sure if the plants weren’t able to fill all the pods or disease came in with the wet weather and roughed them up. But we had a lot of two-bean pods.
“We had some beans in the Arkansas Prairie that looked sure to be in the 60- and 70-bushel range. When they cut 45 and 50 — and, of course, those are still good beans — there were some long faces. I find it interesting that, for all the trouble they had, the Group 4s still out-cut the Group 5s by 5 to 10 bushels per acre.”
All interviewed said that once harvest ends, major field renovation awaits.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re talking cotton, corn, beans or whatever — we are cutting serious ruts everywhere,” says Main. “In the fall, most of our farmers in the (east Tennessee) river bottoms come back after harvest and hip beds back up, let things settle and no-till into them the next spring. So far, folks have been doing a decent job smoothing ruts. The Tennessee hill ground traditionally in cotton will, I think, require a lot of tilling next spring before planting.”
Farr says nearly every field in his area will require work. “We’ll fix the ruts as soon as it gets dry — if that’s next week, we’ll do it. But some of it won’t be done until next year. That’s a definite in some of the rice ground that’s heavily rutted. And everyone has heard the horror stories about low-lying fields that won’t get dry until next spring.
“We have gotten some field work done on high ground, cotton soils. But that’s on very little acreage.”
Much money will be spent on diesel between now and next planting season, says Farr. “That’s a given. It could be close to $50 per acre to shape up. For example, last year at this time we’d work a field by disking, field cultivating, land-plane put some fall pre-emerge out and be done, ready to plant in April. The fields we went across three times last year to prepare for planting will take five or six trips this time around. That will be very costly.”