A Mid-South rice crop that once looked pretty in the field is getting uglier by the minute, according to rice specialists in the region.

In early October, anxiety among Mid-South rice producers was rising under the gray skies, frequent rainfall and delayed harvests that have come to characterize this growing season.

Even so, “there is still a lot of rice that is not ready yet,” said Arkansas Extension rice specialist Chuck Wilson. “We’re still waiting on that late rice, and it’s taking longer than normal to mature because it’s been so cool.

“Start to finish, the season has been one of the most unusual years I’ve ever seen,” Wilson said. “We’ve had crazy weather from beginning to end. We had floods in May, it was hot in June, and rainy in August. Seven inches of rainfall in our dry season is unusual to say the least.”

Harvest data from early-planted Arkansas rice fields has been encouraging, Wilson notes. “Some farmers have told me they’ve cut extremely good yields. On average, the rice that’s been cut to this point is good, not great. That tells me they’ve got a pretty good crop for the most part, probably better than last year.”

But getting the last of the rice from field to bin could be a challenge. “We’ve got 30 percent to 35 percent of the crop still in the field, and I really don’t think the weather is going to get better. As a matter of fact, it’s probably going to get worse within hours,” Wilson said, as yet another weather front was headed toward the Mid-South. “We’re in October. I just don’t see the hot weather we need to dry things out. I hope I’m wrong.”

Rutted fields are shaping up to be another problem. “It means it’s going to take more money to get it going again,” Wilson said. “If we can cut without rutting we’ll be a lot better off. But with fronts coming through, I’d rather cut rice that’s standing than to have to pick it up off the ground.”

Mississippi

The situation wasn’t much better in Mississippi. “It’s a hog pen right now trying to get this stuff out of the field. We’re having to take our grain carts to dry pavement to get the trucks loaded, said Nathan Buehring, Extension rice specialist for Mississippi. “We lost two or three weeks of harvest time in September, and we lost a week in October. We’re probably about 50 percent harvested. We’re going to be well into November before we get this crop out.”

On those rare occasions when the sun made an appearance, producers would cut rice for a few days before moving to soybeans as those fields dry out, “which has put our rice harvest behind. We still have a lot of rice out there to be harvested. And some of the rice that’s laid over has sprouted. And the forecasts don’t make me very optimistic.”

Rice yields “are all across the board,” said Buehring. “We’re just trying to survive right now. We sure are going to need some dry weather before planting season next year to get all these ruts out.”

Louisiana

In Louisiana, harvest delays are affecting the ratoon crop, according to Johnny Saichuk, LSU AgCenter rice specialist. “Most of the first crop is out of the field. We haven’t really started the second crop.”

While second crop acreage was “fairly decent, the crop itself doesn’t look very good at all. Everything seems to be going awfully slow.”

Nonetheless, Saichuk believes that Louisiana could harvest a record crop for yield. “As far as quality is concerned, it’s going to be all over the board.”

Down rice has also been an issue, particularly with CL 151, Saichuk said. “It doesn’t have any particular lodging problems that we know of. It was very, very high yielding, so the heads were very heavy. Growers might have put too much nitrogen on the crop. That could be a big part of the problem. I had a field of CL 151 on my verification program that cut 60 barrels, and it didn’t lodge at all.”

Despite the harvest turmoil, the season should be a “a decent year” in terms of profits for rice producers, according to Saichuk. “I don’t know what the input costs were, but the high yields will help. There was a lot of interest in the medium grains this year and growers were able to contract good prices guaranteed.”

Saichuk says Louisiana planted about 450,000 acres of rice in 2009, 11 percent of which was medium grain rice. “That’s the highest medium acreage in quite a while.”

Whether or not acreage of medium grain increases in 2010 depends on the price outlook for medium grain, according to Saichuk. When price is not a factor, many growers prefer to go with long grain. “Medium grain takes longer to mature and many of the varieties are likely to lodge.”

Missouri

Donn Beighley, rice research fellow at Southeast Missouri State University, says early rice yields in the Missouri Bootheel have ranged from 150 bushels per acre to over 200 bushels. “The early rice has looked pretty good, and they’re really pleased with the quality. What’s happening with the later rice, I haven’t heard much about that yet.”

Rice planting in the Bootheel was spread out from mid-April into June.

Up until the first week in October, later-planted Bootheel rice had been moving quickly toward maturity, Beighley said, “But that last little bit on each panicle wasn’t turning. It was still green. It’s to the point now where you just have to pull the trigger and go get it.

“I don’t know about yield reductions in rice yet,” Beighley said. “What I’m concerned about now is quality. We’ve been in this wetting and drying pattern and that usually leads to more fissuring and cracking in individual grain kernels.”

USDA estimates

In October, USDA projected U.S. rice yields at 7,115 pounds per acre, an increase of 65 pounds from the previous month. In the Mid-South, USDA projected yields of 6,850 pounds per acre for Arkansas, unchanged from previous month, 6,400 pounds for Louisiana, an increase of 100 pounds over the previous month, 6,800 pounds for Mississippi, a decline of 200 pounds per acre and 7,000 pounds for Missouri, an increase of 200 pounds from the previous month.

Total U.S. rice production was estimated at 220 million hundredweight, an increase of 17 million hundredweight over the previous month. By class, rice producers are expected to harvest 154 million hundredweight of long grain rice, a million hundredweight more than the previous year, 62 million hundredweight of medium grain rice, an increase of 15 million hundredweight, and 3.5 million hundredweight of short grain rice, a 140,000 hundredweight increase over the previous year.

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com