While it's not yet time for a post mortem on the rice harvest, it isn't too early to focus on some mid-harvest trends. According to USDA, the Arkansas rice harvest is about 40 percent complete. That estimate is pretty close, says Chuck Wilson, Arkansas Extension rice specialist.
“We've got some areas of the state that are almost finished with rice harvest. Other areas are just getting started. This is just a guess, but I think we'll be close to a state yield record. In its last report, USDA projected the state average at 6,250 pounds. That would equal last year's record yield,” says Wilson.
From one perspective, the fine rice crop is surprising. Arkansas experienced a lot of early-season problems: cold weather, worms, salt, seedling problems, and others.
“But rice is kind of like a Timex — it can take a lot of abuse and keep working.”
The positive side of the growing season is the state had relatively mild weather. There were very few, if any, 100-degree-plus days, says Wilson. Most days were in the low to mid 90s. Nighttime temperatures were mild in the high 60s and low 70s — almost ideal weather for rice.
Many of the disease problems that were anticipated never materialized.
“We were set up in July and early August for blast. The state is planted in a lot of blast-susceptible varieties, although not as susceptible as Newbonnet. So everything was set up for a blast epidemic. But it never happened in a big way,” says Wilson. Farmers did spray a lot of fungicides — both preventative and for sheath blight control.
Excepting red rice, farmers had relatively clean crops. Wilson says most grass was controlled early, so there wasn't a lot of competition from weeds.
“There has been a lot of red rice across the state, though. I suspect those fields won't yield nearly as well as they could have.”
In Prairie County, where a lot of rice is grown, yields are “fantastic, especially when considering how we started the year off. We've been concerned with lespedeza worms and lots of zinc and salt problems. Blast never became an issue and rice overcame a lot,” says Hank Chaney, Prairie County Extension agent.
“If we were still planting lots of Newbonnet, we might have had wipeout fields. The conditions seemed close to perfect for blast. For whatever reason, we dodged the blast bullet. I can't put my finger on exactly why we did. Maybe the pathogen just didn't start rocking and rolling,” says Chaney.
Wilson says he's not sure why, but the heralded variety Ahrent hasn't performed as well as expected.
“It's weird because all indications were it was going to be a great variety. In preliminary trials, Ahrent looked to be as good as or better than Drew. But I've heard a lot of negative comments from farmers. They say it hasn't done as well as it ought to have.”
Farmers are reporting that Ahrent is cutting in the 140- to 150-bushel range while Wells is in the 170s and 180s. That translates to a substantial 30-bushel difference.
“When we released Ahrent, we knew it wouldn't be the best-yielding variety. It was the highest-yielding blast-resistant variety. But it doesn't seem to be doing as well as Drew,” says Wilson.
While Ahrent yields aren't terrible, the variety is getting a reputation as tough to harvest, says Scott Taylor, a consultant with Farm Services in Hoxie, Ark. Farmers report grain is hard to get off the head, and a lot of the crop ends up out the back of combines.
“We've been hearing a lot of those comments lately. Ahrent is also slow to dry down, and we're seeing some lodging. But the yields aren't terrible. We were looking at Ahrent as a replacement for Drew, but I don't know if that's going to happen now. Ahrent is tougher to cut and there may not be a substantial yield difference,” says Taylor.
Wilson says he's hearing many of the same complaints.
“Anecdotally, it appears to be difficult to thrash and separate. I recently went and looked at a field of Ahrent that was being harvested. A lot of the rice was being blown out behind the combine. That field should be hot during duck season. Everyone was joking with the grower, asking if they could hunt it.”
About 42 percent of the state's rice is in Wells, a variety that has done very well this year.
“Wells and Cocodrie have done well in our area. I've heard some exceptionally high yields — over 200 bushels green — in Prairie County. Most yields have been in the 160- to 180-bushel dry range,” says Chaney.
Taylor, who works northeast Arkansas, agrees that thus far it's a good year for Cocodrie and Wells.
“We're seeing 190-bushel to over 200-bushel yields. To be honest, farmers are staying pretty tight-lipped about their yields so far, just hoping the good yields continue. Harvest isn't over by any means — we're probably only 50 percent done.”
Wilson says many farmers are just now beginning to cut Bengal. Bengal is, in effect, the only medium grain the state grows. So far, the yields have been disappointing. That's a concern, but there's really not a great alternative to Bengal at this point, he says.
“There is a medium grain the University of Arkansas is looking at as a potential release. But in terms of getting it out, it's still three or four years away from mass availability. And I'm not sure how much better it is than Bengal anyway.”
The one University of Arkansas variety to keep an eye on is Francis, says Wilson. Named after Francis Williams, a long-time director of the Rice Research and Extension Center in Stuttgart, Ark., the variety is extremely high-yielding. Reports say Francis is yielding 5 to 10 bushels better than any other conventional variety available.
“Some researchers from outside the state have said Francis could be a major impact variety. Everyone seems excited by the yield possibilities. It follows the same course set by Lamont and Newbonnet — both had eye-popping yields.
“With Wells and LaGrue, we've got some farmers reaching 200-bushel rice rather consistently. Hopefully, Francis will allow them to get those results even more frequently and will pull more farmers up to that 200-bushel mark,” says Wilson.