In Mississippi, crop evaluations in Hurricane Katrina’s wake have been sobering.

“It’s tough here,” said Nathan Buehring, Mississippi Extension rice specialist on Thursday morning. “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.”

Arkansas rice

Hurricane Katrina also 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 come through that did some damage.”

Wilson suspects the hurricane knocked down 15,000 to 20,000 acres – about one percent of the state’s 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