Rains from Lee beneficial to state’s farmers

ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — Tropical Storm Lee brought much-needed rains to Mississippi’s parched fields and pastures but minimal flood and wind damage.

Late-season tropical storms can be costly, even devastating, when winds and pounding rains may whip plants and complicate harvests. When Lee swept through the state over Labor Day weekend, most of Mississippi’s crops either had been harvested or needed one last rain before harvest.

Charles Wax, Mississippi State University geosciences professor and state climatologist, described the storm as “very beneficial” because of the extended period of time rain fell, allowing water to soak into the ground rather than running off.

“The heaviest rains occurred from about Jackson to the Golden Triangle area, where anywhere from six to 12 inches fell,” Wax said. “Much of the rest of the state received from two to four inches. The least rain fell in the extreme northwest and southeast corners, only about a quarter to a half inch.”

Mike Howell, agronomic crops agent based in the Southeast District Extension Office in Gulfport, said peanuts were the big winners from Lee’s rains.

“This was one of those million-dollar rains, maybe more. Peanuts needed rain to help mature the 2011 crop,” Howell said. “A lot of the crop was planted later than normal because it was so dry in May. In July, we got more than 20 inches of rain, which is a near-record, but then we had almost no rain in August.”

Bill Burdine, area agronomic crops agent based in Chickasaw County, said sweet potato fields also got a big boost from the rains, which helped current harvest conditions and helped late-planted potatoes to fill out.

“Rains immediately reduced the dust in fields and made it easier for the people harvesting the crop,” he said. “Moisture in the dirt also improves harvest quality because there is less damage from hard clods bruising and skinning potatoes.”

Burdine said much of the crop is later than normal because of weather conditions in June.

“The first two weeks of June were so hot that we had to reset about 10 percent of the crop. In fact, we probably reset more acres this year than in the last 10 years combined because of the June drought,” he said. “Those fields especially needed more moisture to finish maturing the potatoes.”

Erick Larson, grain crops specialist with MSU’s Extension Service, said corn yet to be harvested in the north-northeast part of the state likely did not sustain much damage from the rains.

“Corn has proven itself to be tolerant of wet conditions during harvest as long as strong winds do not cause lodging or stalk breakage,” Larson said. “Corn tolerates wet conditions better than other grain crops. The husk over the ear protects against rain, and the kernel itself is hardier.”

Larson said sunny weather and low humidity following the storm should prevent the development of diseases and kernel sprouting, which is a bigger concern with grain sorghum.

Darrin Dodds, cotton specialist with MSU’s Extension Service, said that fortunately most of the state’s cotton has not been defoliated at the time of the storm.

“Open bolls, especially those on plants that already have been defoliated, are more susceptible to storm damage,” Dodds said. “In some cases, there are fields where plants were whipped around and laid over from the wind. If they don’t stand back up, those areas will be harder to pick.”

Extension soybean specialist Tom Eubank said the storm was “fairly kind” considering what farmers normally expect from a tropical system.

“Rains in the Delta — where the majority of beans are — were mostly moderate and came over an extended period of time,” Eubank said. “There are always some exceptions, but most growers considered the rains beneficial, especially the later crops planted after the river flood.”

With about 50 percent of the state’s rice crop harvested before the storm, growers may face some challenges harvesting fields in the central Delta where rice was downed, or lodged, by heavy rain and wind.

“Yields will not be severely impacted, but time and cost will increase significantly when harvesting downed rice,” said Nathan Buehring, Extension rice specialist based at MSU’s Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville.

“Harvest progress will slow for growers who have downed rice,” he said. “Combines were back in the field within a couple of days, which will likely cause rutting in fields where there was significant rainfall. Extra field tillage will be needed to work the ruts out, which will again cost more.”

Rocky Lemus, Extension forage and grazing systems specialist, said pastures were in desperate need of rains and rebounded overnight. New growth should delay the need to start feeding hay until after the first frost.

“The rain was a big help to forage producers in the southern part of the state to allow some more growth of their bahiagrass and bermudagrass,” he said. “In the central and northern part of the state, the extra rain will give tall fescue an early start for those who might be grazing or stockpiling.”

Lemus said the rain would allow producers in South Mississippi to start planting annual ryegrass, clovers and small grains in the following weeks.

“One that thing that producers need to realize is that this high rainfall in combination with high temperatures could be a perfect ingredient for blast in annual ryegrass. Producers need to be cautious not to plant too early,” he said. “If soil testing hay and pasture fields, wait several weeks to allow soil moisture levels to equilibrate before collecting soil samples and avoid very wet areas when sampling.”

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