Louisiana weather may be going through a bit of dry spell, but LSU AgCenter crop experts are in near-unanimous agreement that a lack of rainfall doesn’t present a problem. The only producers who would like to see more rain are those with ryegrass pastures and those who are planting corn.
“The cold weather in January and early February really retarded the growth of ryegrass,” said LSU AgCenter forage specialist Ed Twidwell. “So while the warm weather should be favorable for ryegrass, the dry soil conditions are hampering its growth now.”
By not having adequate ryegrass available for grazing, livestock producers may have to feed more hay this spring. “At the present time we are not in a crisis situation,” Twidwell said. “But we could be soon without rain, particularly in north Louisiana.”
The Louisiana weather, particularly in the south, has been driven, in part, by the phenomenon of La Niña, a condition when the water in the central Pacific is cooler than normal and changes the atmospheric movement. “We anticipated this,” said Jay Grymes, a consulting climatologist with the LSU AgCenter.
La Niña will likely persist, giving the state below-normal rainfall for the next few months, Grymes said.
“We’ve been in the throes of a serious drought about the last three months,” Grymes said. But agriculture rarely needs normal rain in winter, and 2011 has had 50-75 percent of normal rainfall. The next one to three months will see normal to a little below normal rainfall.
“This may still be a bit of a good thing,” Grymes said. It offers serious relief from floods, and about 70 percent of floods in Louisiana come in winter and spring.
As for temperatures, “the first two weeks of February were among the coldest on record, but it’s been April-like the past two weeks,” Grymes said. But spring temperatures will be close to normal — a little on the high side.
“The unusual spell should stay mild until mid-March, when temperatures will move to the cooler side,” he said. “This will feel colder because we’ve become used to warmer weather. We’ve had April weather in February, but we don’t expect March weather in May.”
Farmers should be in fine shape heading into the heart of spring, Grymes said. “We don’t need an end to climatological drought to make farmers happy. Timing, not volume, is what they need.”
The recent, rapid rise in temperature has many growers eager to plant corn, despite the risk of cold injury, said LSU AgCenter corn specialist John Kruse. “Corn planting has begun. We have adequate soil moisture in most places.”
Louisiana received enough rainfall over the winter to moisten soils but generally not enough to recharge subsoil moisture, farm ponds and bayous, Kruse said. As soon as daytime temperatures really start to rise, soils will begin to dry out rapidly.
“My guess is irrigation will be started very early for those that have it,” Kruse said. “Right now we are okay on moisture but that will change rapidly without frequent, timely rainfall. We need enough rain at the right time to keep this crop rolling.”
For most farmers in the state, however, dry weather is not a problem at the moment.
“Strawberries love this weather,” said Regina Bracy, a horticulturist at the LSU AgCenter Hammond Research Station. “Warm days and cool nights make for good harvest and sweet berries.”
With the warmer weather, strawberries are ripening faster, Bracy said. And if warm weather persists, consumers should expect a good supply of delicious Louisiana berries beginning at Mardi Gras.
“From the standpoint of sugarcane, this is nearly ideal weather,” said LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Kenneth Gravois. The warm and dry conditions are beneficial for breaking winter dormancy as the new crop emerges.
“With the crop already established, there is more than enough moisture — in fact, too much moisture only encourages stalk rotting diseases in sugarcane in early spring,” Gravois said.
“The plant-cane crop is in excellent condition, and stubble fields are emerging well. The worst thing that could happen to this crop is a late freeze, which is possible throughout the month of March.”
The lack of rain has not influenced rice other than possibly adding some pumping costs for farmers who want to water seed and must flood their fields to prepare them plant, said LSU AgCenter rice specialist Johnny Saichuk. The absence of rain has allowed many to prepare the land for planting.
“The interesting thing now is the unusually warm weather we have had so far,” Saichuk said. “I have studied the long-range forecasts and they look favorable, which I am sure others are studying, too.”
Farmers are tempted to plant now even though the recommended planting date to start is March 15, he said. One thing preventing some farmers from planting is that crop insurance will not cover rice planted before March 8 in south Louisiana.
Sweet potato growers are beginning their bedding operations, and LSU AgCenter sweet potato specialist Tara Smith said she doesn’t see any real issues at this juncture.
“We do need some moisture available for ideal plant growth and development in the beds,” Smith said. “But I only know of two producers who have completed bedding operations and conditions thus far are OK. We will begin actual planting in production fields in early May.”
The warm weather is causing the wheat crop to grow faster than normal, Twidwell said. And faster growth makes wheat more susceptible to late-spring freezes.
“As long as we don’t have freezing weather, this is not too much of a problem,” Twidwell said. “I will feel better once we get past about March 20 without any freeze.”
Recent warm and humid conditions have the potential to cause stripe rust on wheat, so growers need to be monitoring their fields for this disease, Twidwell said. Nevertheless, dry weather is actually pretty good for wheat, allowing growers to get into their fields and apply nitrogen fertilizer.
“Wheat growers really won’t be in a bind for rain until April when the wheat begins to flower,” Twidwell said. “Drought at that growth stage can depress yields. But overall, the state’s wheat crop looks good at this time.”
“It’s still early for soybeans,” said LSU AgCenter soybean specialist Ron Levy. “Planting won’t start until late March or early April, so farmers aren’t concerned about rainfall at this time.”
The same holds true for cotton, Kruse said. Cotton planting won’t start until April.