Rain, cold cause crop plantings to lag far behind

Weather weirdness has become the new normal for Mississippi farmers this spring as they watch for forecasts of warm, dry days they would routinely expect in most years.

Even before temperatures in the low 40s or even lower combined with the near daily rainfall, planting averages were falling far below last year’s levels and levels based on 5-year averages.

U.S. Department of Agriculture planting reports for the week ending April 28 show a widening gap between plantings completed in previous years compared to this year. Last year at the end of April, for instance, growers had planted 98 percent of their corn crop. This year they’ve achieved a planting percentage of just 84 percent.

Delta row crops endured temperatures below 40 degrees late last week.

Delta row crops endured temperatures below 40 degrees late last week.

An even wider gap is shown in planted corn that has emerged. This year only 56 percent of corn has emerged, a circumstance the USDA report attributes to cooler ground temperatures slowing germination. Last year, 94 percent had emerged by the end of April. A five-year average puts emerged corn at 87 percent.

None of the corn is looking good for the end of April, one Leflore County grower reported to the USDA. “In general, no one is happy with their corn stand or its color.”

A Prentiss County farmer who reported his equipment sitting idle for the last week of April, strived to find a bright side in his USDA report: “If April showers bring May flowers, Prentiss County will have a bumper crop.”

The rain and cold have caused specialty growers — those who produce vegetables, fruit and herbs and spices — to endure uncertainties as well, said John Michael Riley, agriculture economist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “I was just down in South Mississippi this week. The largest specialty crop grower in the state was pretty much underwater.”

Reported one DeSoto County specialty crop farmer to the USDA: “Last week’s frost damaged vegetable crops and blueberries.”

Rice growers are similarly behind in their plantings. As April ended, they had planted 13 percent of their acreage. By comparison, by the end of April last year they had 93 percent of their crop in the ground, according to USDA reports, which put the five-year average at 68 percent.

Rice plantings have been slow to emerge as well, the USDA reports. April ended with 7 percent of the plantings having emerged. The agency put the emergence percentage at 75 for the same period last year. The five-year average for rice emergence is 68 percent.

The ground Mississippi farmers plant has 52 percent more moisture than it needs, says the USDA, emphasizing “dryer weather is desperately needed at this time.”

And “some wind to dry the ground out,” MSU’s Riley would add.

For weeks, rainouts have limited growers to one or two days in their fields. And over the last weekend and into this week temperatures fell to levels rarely seen this time of year, including recordings as low as 38 degrees in the Delta along with reports of scattered frost.

Tim Walker, a rice specialist with the MSU Extension Service in Stoneville, has hardly any historical data to look at in assessing what soggy cold days in May mean for the state’s rice growers. For now, he says he is relying on a hunch: “Personally, I feel like everything is going to be OK. We will put all this behind us.”

Walker is hedging some, however. “With frost-damaged rice, not many people have seen that,” he said. “To an extent, we are sort of feeling our way through it.”

While this year may be troublesome for rice growers, its unusual nature could make it valuable from a scientific standpoint, especially as the weather relates to harvest yields, Walker said. “We’re going to learn a lot this year.”

In years past the most consistent yields from year to year have been from rice planted in late March and early April, according to Walker.

Plantings as late as late May have brought both some of the worst and some of the best yields, he said. What has not been present is consistency, he added.

The key to yield levels is likely to rest with how hot the dog days of August get. “If we can get planted by the 20th of May, most of our pollination will occur in August,” Walker said.

As pollination gets underway, favorable August temperatures will be needed. “We really need night temperatures to be 75 or below,” he said. “When we see night temperatures approaching 80 or above we expect problems.”

Like humans, rice must rest at night. “When it is that hot you usually mess up respiration for the plant,” he noted. To respond to the stress of excessive heat, the plant respiration system uses up a lot its carbohydrates — or fuel — it needs later on, especially for a grain fill, Walker added.

The problem worsens when the night’s heat transitions to fast rising temperatures in the morning daylight, according to Walker. Rice typically pollinates between 10 a.m. and noon. “Once it gets above 93 degrees, the pollen can become sterile,” he said.

With the late rice plantings, Mississippi is certain to need August night temperatures more in line with the state’s normal temperatures for that time of year. “In 2010 we had 17 nights in August with temperatures 75 degrees or above. That’s not good,” Walker said.

Walker said he has witnessed profitable rice crops planted as late as the first of June. But he is unsure how many rice growers will want to bet they can make that happen.

They may turn to soybeans, he said. Soybean futures are running strong right now and irrigated soybean fields can perform well when planted in late May, Walker added.

Mississippi soybean growers have to hope Walker is correct. At the end of April, they had planted only 11 percent of their acreage, while by the same time last year they had 56 percent planted.

Regardless of the crop, 2013 success will rest with Mississippi weather establishing more typical and predictable patterns. There’s been no sign yet of that happening, however.

“I spoke with a longtime rice farmer who is on his 37th crop,” Walker noted. “He told me he has never experienced a weather pattern like he has experienced this year.”

On the upside, some time is still on the clock, said Riley, the agriculture economist.

“We’re sitting here today and there is so much of the growing season left.”

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