LITTLE ROCK — With a forecast of sunny, dry weather for the time being, farmers across Arkansas are hitting the fields trying to finish the soybean harvest.

"The weather has thrown us for a loop," says Chris Tingle, soybean specialist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

Tingle said Arkansas has been lagging behind the rest of the nation in harvesting its 2.9-million-acre soybean crop.

"Even though fields will be muddy, we've got to get this crop out. We're looking at having to tear fields up, which will hurt later on." He said farmers will have ruts in their fields that will have to be repaired next planting season.

Dwayne Beaty, area Extension soybean agronomist, said it's a stressful time for farmers. He noted that the last three farmers he's talked to had 500 to 800 acres of beans left in their fields. "They also have cotton that has to be picked."

The big question on every soybean farmer's mind is how much the weather has affected quality.

"Typically, our beans are mature two to three weeks before we can get in and harvest them," Tingle said. "We've been out of the fields already three weeks and the beans were ready weeks before that. In other words, our beans have been ready to harvest up to six weeks in some fields. The quality of the beans is slowly deteriorating."

He expects grain elevators will dock many farmers for quality problems.

Beaty compared the statewide weather problems this fall with similar conditions in August and September of last year in southeast Arkansas. "If this had been in late August or early September, like last year, we'd have beans sprouting in the pods."

He said warmer temperatures could encourage sprouting, which would result in severe dockage. Weather-related problems can also result in shriveled beans, lower test weights and decay in the pod, Beaty said.

"I thought we were going to get by this year in decent shape and have a good crop. Some of the early-harvested fields really performed well. Trey Reaper, Extension area soybean agronomist, cut his Arkansas County Soybean Research Verification field early and had a 68-bushel yield per acre with conventional varieties."

The 10-year average statewide soybean yield is 29.2 bushels per acre, according to the Arkansas Agricultural Statistics Service. The service had forecast a statewide yield of 35 bushels an acre for the 2002 crop.

Tingle said Midwest farmers have also had weather-related problems which have caused the market price for soybeans to rally.

"If we can get this crop out, we can take advantage of that," he said.

Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.