Throughout March, rice planting has been fast and furious. That’s especially true in Arkansas, where Chuck Wilson describes the crop as “way, way early. We’ve got a lot of rice already planted and it isn’t even the first of April. Producers are calling from all over the state saying they’re almost done planting.”

The Arkansas Extension rice specialist can’t recall ever seeing Arkansas rice emerged by the first of April. But by the end of March, rice had already been up for several weeks.

“That’s certainly odd. But, then again, I’m not sure we’ve ever had 80 degree weather with dry conditions for the last three weeks of March.

“Now, producers have backed off a bit because of moisture needs. It’s gotten very dry.”

With rain in the forecast, Nathan Buehring, Mississippi Extension rice specialist, says conditions in the Delta side of the state “aren’t really good. There hasn’t been a rain in a while. There’s a good chance for rain over the weekend, but we need a good 2-inch rain to replenish soil moisture.”

Mississippi’s south Delta region has “a good bit” of rice planted. Buehring estimates the state’s rice is 15 to 20 percent planted.

“It’s extremely dry in some fields. Some guys have planted and been forced to flush. If it doesn’t rain in the next few days, there will be plenty more fields being flushed just to get a stand up.”

Buehring has recently been gathering soil samples. He can “hardly get a probe more than 4 or 5 inches in the ground. That should provide an indication of how dry has become.”

Many Mississippi farmers have gotten ground prepped but can’t plant soybeans or corn because it’s too dry. “They can plant rice, though, and plan for a flush. So, a bit of rice is going in early just because they’re caught up on everything else. We’ve got pivots and furrow irrigation already running on corn. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Buehring expects Mississippi rice acreage to hover around 150,000 acres. “Last year, we had about 190,000 acres of rice, so we’ll be cutting back a little. There are still producers wrestling with what crop mix to go with. The slight cutback on rice is due, in part, to not having CL 131. Another factor is the volatility in the marketplace along with high-dollar soybeans and corn.”

Meanwhile, Louisiana rice farmers are getting stands. “Our rice crop is a bit later than normal because farmers didn’t want to take chances planting in marginal conditions with seed supply so limited,” says Johnny Saichuk, LSU AgCenter rice specialist. “That means we didn’t have as much of that riskier, last week of February/first of March planting.”

The farmers’ concern with seed availability mostly stems from the banning of Cheniere and Clearfield 131 (CL 131) in 2007.

“Early on, we thought we’d be at around 450,000 acres of rice in the state,” says Saichuk. “More recently, after CL 131 was pulled, we’ve backed down to the 375,000-acre range.

“I spoke with a major parish agent yesterday. He thought the parish rice acreage would be off 10 percent, or so. Some of that will be offset by Vermillion Parish, which is expected to grow more rice than last year when salt was bad in fields.”

Starting the last week of March, rice planting in Louisiana has been “hot and heavy. We actually need some rain and are having to flush a lot of fields to get crops up. That makes us a bit antsy on silt loams where crusting can result, but there’s not much choice.”

In the Missouri Bootheel’s New Madrid County, Jeff House says most of the groundwork has been done. “Some of the wetter soils haven’t been worked, but those are in the minority,” says the county Extension agent. “We have a lot of corn planted — well over 50 percent. There’s also some rice that’s been planted. It’s still a bit early for us. We aren’t way outside the planting window, but it is early.

“Farmers have concerns with fertilizer supply and prices. But so much has already been booked, what can be done? We’ll just have to be as efficient as possible.”

Asked if his county will plant more corn, House replies with a low whistle. “Absolutely, yes. There is much more corn going in here. We still don’t have a good handle on the shakeout because we’re so dry in many places and planting is being held up. But if we get any rain soon, I still see major corn acreage up here.”

House envisions cotton and soybean ground switching to corn. However, there will also be beans going into acres farmers wanted to put rice on. “That’s because we can’t get the rice seed we want — primarily CL 131.”

A lot of Bootheel ground has been worked to smooth ruts. That has added to a dearth of soil moisture.

“A lot of farmers here prefer stale seedbed or no-till. They couldn’t do it this year — they were forced to work the ground to get it back into shape. Doing that means a lot of moisture was lost. And we haven’t gotten the rains to replenish that. Many farmers are planting into dry soils and praying for rain. I’ve heard guys talking about running wells to water a crop up.”

The massive early-season planting means researchers will be watching crops closely.

“This offers a good chance to study some things,” says Wilson. “We’ve just got to get past the cold snap at Easter that can occur. As long as we get past the frost window, the crop should be fine.

“Any freeze will hurt some farmers. But that’s not a risk that’s outside the norm — it’s just on a new level with all the early rice this year. Think about this: rice planting in Arkansas began in earnest about March 12 and hasn’t slowed down since. I doubt that’s ever been the case before.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com