Will Southwest Louisiana farmers benefit from a shift of rice acreage in other farm regions to corn, sorghum, wheat and soybeans? The possibilities of such a scenario were detailed by LSU AgCenter experts in a recent series of meetings for rice farmers in southwest Louisiana. LSU AgCenter economist Kurt Guidry said at the Acadia Parish Rice Forum in Crowley, La., that farmers in northeast Louisiana might plant crops other than rice, and it’s anticipated that Arkansas and Mississippi farmers will decrease their rice acreages, too.

Guidry said rice farmers are facing the start of this year on a better footing than last year, because energy costs are lower and ending stocks of rice are less than the 2006 total. But an increase in demand for fertilizer for expanded grain acreage in the Midwest could cause a nitrogen price increase, he warned.

Prices above $10 a hundredweight for rice are much better than prices last year, the LSU AgCenter economist said, and potential exists for an increase if exports improve.

At another of the meetings, Guidry told farmers from Evangeline and St. Landry parishes that ethanol production is driving the grain market, resulting in an increase of corn acreage.

So far, more than 100 ethanol plants are in production nationwide, and another 48 to 50 plants will be online within the next 18 months. Most will rely on corn as feedstock, he said, and farmers are expected to respond with a huge increase in corn planting, possibly an additional 6 million to 9 million acres.

Guidry said it’s unlikely current corn prices, hovering around $3.50 a bushel, could be sustained if production increases by 7 million to 8 million acres.

Soybeans have rebounded because of increased demand from China, which buys half of the U.S. crop, according to Guidry.

South American soybean production could affect prices, he said, and the amount of U.S. acreage shifting from beans to corn could also impact the market.

LSU AgCenter county agent Ron Levy of Acadia Parish said that parish’s rice farmers could end several years of declining acreage this year. Last year, the parish total was 68,718 acres in rice, down from 90,253 in 2004.

“I think we’ll be around 71,000 or 72,000 acres this year,” Levy said.

At the Jefferson Davis Parish meeting in Welsh, La., LSU AgCenter soil scientist Gary Breitenbeck said a silica deficiency appears to be the likely culprit in the ongoing problem that scientists are calling Localized Decline or Mystery Malady. The problem causes young rice to wither and often die.

“We have reason to think this can become more of a problem,” he said.

Originally, the problem was blamed on excess iron, zinc and aluminum in the soil. But Breitenbeck said the lack of silica has been the common thread in affected fields.

He said several different tests were run on a field farmed by Bubba Leonards in Acadia Parish.

“The only thing that really worked and turned it around was silica slag,” Breitenbeck said.

The material was applied at the rate of 3 tons per acre at a cost of $200 an acre, he said, but it resulted in noticeably stronger rice stalks.

In Kaplan, La., at the Vermilion Parish session, Breitenbeck also told farmers that research continues on the problem of salt contamination left on fields from Hurricane Rita’s storm surge.

Studies are showing that salt goes into the soil faster than it comes out, he said.

Draining a field that had been flooded and water-leveled removed between 500 and 1,000 parts per million of salt in some tests, but further studies revealed flooding fields with fresh water might not have benefits.

For example, in a field of the Donald and Brent Segura farm in Vermilion Parish that was flooded and water-leveled, surface soil samples collected after the field had dried did not show any benefits of flooding. Salt was found as deep as 24 inches, Breitenbeck said, with most at a depth between 12 inches and 18 inches. He said the salts apparently move upward as the soil dries.

Breitenbeck said he needs help from farmers willing to allow testing on fields with contamination of at least 1,000 parts per million of salt.

At the Evangeline Parish meeting in Ville Platte, La., LSU AgCenter soybean specialist David Lanclos said soybeans will remain the No. 1 crop planted in Louisiana in 2007 with good prices.

He said planting beans earlier will be important to harvest a crop before diseases such as Asian soybean rust take their toll. He also emphasized the importance of narrow-spaced rows, raised beds and irrigation.

“We’ve got to spend money to make money on this crop,” he said.

In addition, LSU AgCenter plant pathologist Don Groth told farmers at all four meetings that he was surprised by last year’s rice crop losses caused by the fungus cercospora, which causes narrow brown spot disease. He said the disease usually is present — but not as extensively as it was in 2006.

“It usually occurs so late in the season that you don’t have much damage,” he said, adding that preliminary research indicates Clearfield 131 may be the most susceptible variety.

Fungicide selections are critical, because some like Quadris have no effect on the disease, Groth pointed out. On the other hand, Tilt, at the rate of 6 ounces per acre applied at boot stage, showed good activity, and Quilt and Stratego also had a good response, he said.

Groth said it’s likely that a combination of circumstances led to higher disease pressure from cercospora. The large number of fields where rice survived the winter created an environment ripe for the fungus to develop, he said, and frequent pre-harvest rains kept enough moisture for the disease to thrive.

e-mail: bschultz@agcenter.lsu.edu.