Lack of rain leaves Louisiana farmers hurting

Richard Bogren, McCormick, Michael E., Levy, Jr., Ronald J., Hay, Gary M., Linscombe, Steven D., Twidwell, Edward K., Saichuk, John K.  |  6/17/2009 11:16:03 PM

News Release Distributed 06/17/09

The current spate of dry weather approaching drought conditions has Louisiana farmers in a bind, according to experts with the LSU AgCenter.

Some of the state’s corn crop “is really suffering,” said Dr. Ron Levy, LSU AgCenter soybean and small grain specialist based in Alexandria. “Early-planted fields are doing okay, but later-planted corn is going to have yield losses.”

“We went from wet to dry in a really short time,” Levy said.

Levy pointed out that lack of rain primarily affects fields that are not irrigated, although production costs can rise as farmers spend more money pumping water onto dry fields.

“The corn crop went from excellent to less than average without irrigation,” the LSU AgCenter specialist said.

The soybean crop, on the other hand, is suffering more, Levy said.

“Most soybean fields are severely affected, especially in south Louisiana where almost none is irrigated,” Levy said

“Some of the fields won’t recover,” he added. “Once soybeans start to flower and they don't get enough water, that limits the yield potential. With no forecast rain in the next week, we can see a large impact on yield.”

Levy said the longer the soybean crop goes without rain and no irrigation, producers could be facing yield losses of 50 percent or more. What may have been a 40-bushel-per-acre soybean crop, for example, could be reduced to 20 bushels per acre or less, he said.

“Dry weather is starting to have a significant impact on pasture and hay production around the state for the beef and dairy industries,” said Dr. Gary Hay, interim director of the LSU AgCenter’s School of Animal Sciences in Baton Rouge.

It’s also starting to affect corn for the dairy farmers who grow corn for silage, Hay said.

Dairy farmers in southeast Louisiana also are feeling the consequences, said Dr. Mike McCormick, resident coordinator of the LSU AgCenter’s Southeast Research Station in Franklinton.

“Because more than 80 percent of Louisiana dairies are pasture-based, we are seeing steadily diminishing levels of pasture grass,” McCormick said. As a result, dairy farmers are resorting to stored feed, he said.

“Should the drought become prolonged, corn silage production may be hurt substantially,” he added.

“Inordinately high temperatures and humidity associated with the dry weather are limiting diet intake on most Louisiana dairy farms,” McCormick said. “And cows that do not eat well don’t milk well.”

Horses and beef cattle aren’t immune from weather-related feed shortages, either.

“The dry weather is beginning to have a negative impact on many pastures and hayfields in the state,” said LSU forage specialist Dr. Ed Twidwell.

After good moisture in early spring, warm-season pasture and hay grasses, particularly Bermuda grass and Bahia grass, “simply aren’t growing very well,” Twidwell said.

This means producers can expect low hay yields with “major ramifications later in the year as producers may not have an adequate amount of hay to feed their cow herds during the fall and winter,” he said.

If the dry conditions continue into July, producers may have to feed some hay to offset the lack of grass available for grazing or perhaps liquidate some of their cow herds, he added.

Twidwell said producers could plant summer-annual forages such as sorghum-sudan grass or pearl millet as “emergency” forages that can be planted until about mid-July.

Louisiana sugarcane farmers want relatively dry weather in late April and May to promote increased shoot population, but once the population reaches a desired number, sugarcane requires substantial moisture, said Dr. Ben Legendre, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist.

Sugarcane growth can exceed more than an inch a day during the “grand growth period from June through early September,” Legendre said. “Rainfall is the key.”

“If rainfall is not adequate, vegetative growth slows, which can have an impact on ultimate yield at harvest,” the LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist said.

“If the dry weather continues, the population is reduced,” Legendre said. “Generally speaking, this loss in growth is never recovered. Moisture is very critical at this time of year for sugarcane to reach its maximum yield potential.”

Because it is irrigated, rice generally doesn’t suffer much during dry weather, said Dr. Johnny Saichuk, LSU AgCenter rice specialist based in Crowley.

“On the positive side, dry weather usually means less disease, more sunlight and eventually higher yield potential,” Saichuk said.

Current weather provides “pretty good growing conditions for rice,” said Dr. Steve Linscombe, LSU AgCenter rice breeder and regional director based in Crowley.

“The sunshine provides maximum radiant energy, and the low humidity helps hold down disease,” Linscombe said.

He added, however, that high temperatures with extended periods above 95 degrees can be a problem.

“The negative aspects are the obvious higher pumping costs because the same bright sunshine and lower humidity result in higher water use,” Saichuk said.

He said a second negative consideration is to surface water supplies that some rice producers use to flood their fields.

“As of last week, some farmers in Vermilion Parish were running out of fresh water,” Saichuk said, attributing some of the problems to lingering hurricane damage to canals used for drainage and irrigation.

“I saw two farms last week that had pumped salty water into their fields and are now seeing what appeared to be a normal rice crop slowly dying,” Saichuk said. “Without fresh water, there is nothing they can do but watch it happen.”

Rick Bogren

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