Still early in the Delta rice harvest, Extension specialists say yield reports are trickling in. Thus far, say the men, it's been a banner year for uncertainty. That doesn't necessarily bode ill for the crop, though.
By Aug. 22, south Louisiana rice producers had harvested 80 percent to 90 percent of their rice. That means, overall, “we were between 65 and 75 percent finished in the state,” says John Saichuk, Louisiana Extension rice specialist. “The harvest in the north begins mid-state and moves up. We began harvesting verification fields in Concordia Parish (on Aug. 21). We'll go into Avoyelles Parish sometime (the week of Aug. 25). The week following, we should get into one of our later fields in Richland Parish. Some rice should be cut in East Carroll Parish, Morehouse Parish and those areas by the end of the month.”
Saichuk hasn't heard anything from early cutting in the northern half of the state. But from the south, it's a “mixed bag. Producers are seeing yields ranging from very high to disappointingly low. I'm not sure where we'll shake out.”
Saichuk believes Louisiana will end up with yields a bit under last year's: slightly over 5,900 pounds per acre and just under a state record.
“We'll have a good crop. The final yield figures will also depend on our second crop of rice. Last year, we had an excellent second crop in the southern part of the state. Unfortunately, with the hurricanes coming in, that crop was finished before a combine got through it — we harvested hardly any of it.”
With less than 5 percent of the state's acres cut, Arkansas is just now moving into “serious” harvest, says Extension specialist Chuck Wilson.
“Initially, I've heard some decent yields. USDA is projecting a crop of 6,450 pounds per acre. That would be a record eclipsing last year's best ever yield of 6,440 pounds per acre,” says Wilson. “Will we cut record yields? I'm a bit of a skeptic right now because of the questions regarding early flooding in some of our rice. Rice does have the ability to aggressively recover from a lot of stress, so I may be overly cautious.”
At this point, south Arkansas rice looks good. Fields there have had good weather all season. Extreme north Arkansas — around Clay County — has rice that looks as good as any in the state, says Wilson. The Grand Prairie also looks good with some “fine” yields are reportedly being harvested there.
Northeast Arkansas — west of Crowley's Ridge — went through a lot of severe flooding during the spring. The rice that wasn't replanted recovered and looks good. But until the combine runs through it, “we won't know how much it was actually hurt. That area had fields that were underwater for days. The replanting was done in June and rice planted that late normally isn't as good as our earlier April rice. I'm keeping a close eye on that particular area. Poinsett, Jackson, Lawrence, Cross and Craighead counties are all there. That's really the heart of our rice production — four of the top five rice-producing counties are there.”
The week of Sept. 18, Mississippi producers cut some rice — but not enough for Joe Street to get a handle on what the crop is going to do. Street, Mississippi Extension rice specialist, says some of the acres cut so far have been better than last year (when Mississippi averaged 6,400 pounds per acre), some worse.
“If I was to characterize it right now, I'd say we have an average crop. USDA has us listed at 253,000 acres of rice — that's in the ballpark. They have our yield coming in at last year's level.”
Mississippi rice was planted early. “We started in late March and early April. April was warm enough to get the crop up, so we got off to a good start. Believe it or not, weather has been pretty favorable for a rice crop. Because of that, I'd have expected some really good yields coupled with the fact that, in most cases, disease hasn't been too severe. Until (mid-August), temperatures haven't been above 95 degrees while the rice was heading. It's still too early to say we won't have a great crop. But what we've seen harvested thus far hasn't been spectacular.”
Street says Mississippi has about three crops of rice in the state: really early rice, some rice planted after the first wave of rains, and then some rice planted very late.
“Producers with some of that late-planted rice need to be watching for stink bugs. As we're harvesting corn and soybeans stink bugs will move into rice fields.”
If Louisiana hadn't run into such horrible weather conditions earlier this season, Saichuk says, there's “little doubt we'd have set another yield record. Had we had more sunshine, this would have been an incredible crop. We just had too much cloud cover, too much late rain.
“We also had a hard start with the crop. Delayed planting is bad news for rice. (Our) research on late planting shows the more planting is delayed, the worse yields are. You can get away with late planting up to a point, but then yields drop off dramatically.
(Editor's note: for more information on this study, see www.lsuagcenter.com/subjects/rice/ricehome.htm.)
“Basically, Louisiana faced a late planting season because we were cool and wet early. Then the rains shut off and fields were planted. There were quite a few days without rain and it appeared we'd have a dynamite crop. About midseason, though, thunderstorms began sweeping across the state. The experience from then on was cloudy and rainy.”
Saichuk says there's an old saying among rice farmers: If you've got to pump, you're making rice.
“In other words, the sun is shining, there's no rain, disease pressure is less and the season is shaping up well. We didn't have to pump as much this summer, and I believe that's why we didn't get the crop we could have.”
And the fear of bad weather continues. While riding combines, producers are keeping one eye on their grain and one eye on gathering clouds.
“The northeastern section of the state didn't suffer from bad weather quite as much as the southern. We think they'll have some good rice up there. But they haven't harvested yet and the weather may turn bad again. There's a string of storms in the Gulf of Mexico right now that Delta farmers need to be watching out for. I hope we're able to get our rice out before the rains come,” says Saichuk.
Until recently, Arkansas has had good weather. Over the last month or so, the state experienced mild temperatures (highs in the low 90s and lows in the low 70s) during important heading and grain-filling stages. That's certainly favorable for good milling yields, says Wilson.
But the later crop in the state is suffering from the current heat wave.
“So the later crop may be hurt more than the earlier planted rice. But that's not unusual,” says Wilson.
Regarding disease, Wilson has had some reports around the state of blast. In several cases, producers' rice was hit severely. But the hot, dry weather seems to have held the problem in check, he says.
Wilson points to several things that have stood out this season.
“First, Francis has done a good job. There are some questions because of some plant height variability, but that's not a big deal. That's just the nature of the variety. When the big heads start showing up on Francis, folks pay attention.”
One downside: “Blast we've found has been on Francis, Wells and Bengal. If you plant Francis in sandy fields that are difficult to irrigate with tree lines running up the sides allowing dew to stay heavy, blast is more likely. Obviously, farmers who planted Francis and were hit with blast aren't ones who have as positive an outlook on the variety. But overall, as long as you put it in the right field, it's an excellent variety.”
Wilson also points to Clearfield rice varieties. “We've got about 100,000 acres of Clearfield 151, 161 and a bit of 121. Reports are that, for the most part, it's been much easier to clean up red rice. As long as it yields reasonably well I think Clearfield will be a nice system for us.”
Saichuk says he's also hearing farmers are “well-pleased with Clearfield 161. Milling reports are good on it, which was expected since it has the same properties as Cypress. While the yield potential isn't as good as Cocodrie and some others, in situations where there's red rice, 161 is a valuable asset. We expect acreage of the variety to increase next year.”
Overall, the Arkansas rice crop has seen a light pest season, says Wilson.
“Last year, we saw a lot of lespedeza worms, and they didn't show up this year. We did see some patchy instances of water weevils. Stink bugs didn't show up like we feared they might — certainly not at the epidemic levels of 2001.
“One issue this year has been getting good grass control. Overall, I think this will be an expensive crop. Producers typically spent a lot of money on control initially or they had a lot of escapes. In some cases, producers faced both. In fields where there were escapes, stinkbug pressure was the highest.
The only other issue that concerns Wilson is that early on, “when we were trying to fertilize, heavy rains were falling. A lot of fertilizer went out on wet soil in May. It's going to be hard until we actually start getting yield reports to know how badly that hurt us, if at all. It's been a strange year, with the end result potentially being a good crop. But you know what? We'll take strange as long as it yields well.”