​Water, low prices led 2016 challenges

Frances Gould, Schultz, Bruce  |  1/24/2017 8:19:55 PM

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Research plots of Clearfield rice lines are harvested in a preliminary yield test at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station. Weather conditions complicated harvest for researchers and many farmers after heavy rainfall in August. Photo by Bruce Schultz

Louisiana rice farmers faced a number of challenges in 2016, but the two biggest were high water and low prices.

Steve Linscombe, director of the LSU AgCenter H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station, said the poor crop of 2016 already has farmers concerned about 2017.

“That, coupled with the current market situation, means it’s going to be a tough year for producers,” he said. “It’s one you want to put behind you.”

Flooding hit north Louisiana in March and south Louisiana in August.

Linscombe said the year started well in south Louisiana, but flooding in north Louisiana caused problems there at planting.

“We had a lot more rice planted in early March and late February in south Louisiana than we have in a while,” he said. “We had 23 to 30 percent of it planted in that window.”

But midspring, rainfall interrupted many farmers’ planting plans. Linscombe said his research plots had to be planted later than he prefers.

Before the August flood, the crop would have been decent, he said. “We had a good crop, but not record breaking. Most people would have had a yield similar to last year.”

“Without the rains, we would have had a below-average crop on the first crop,” he said.

Then came the rain, and with it went a considerable amount of rice.

High water submerged rice, causing much of it to sprout. Quality losses were common, and yields decreased considerably.

Yields in north Louisiana also suffered from heavy spring rains and hot summer temperatures, Linscombe said.

The second crop turned out to be about average, off considerably from the record-breaking ratoon crop of 2015. Some had yields exceeding 20 barrels (72 bushels or 3,240 pounds), but many harvested rice in the single digits, he said.

AgCenter extension rice specialist Dustin Harrell said unfavorable weather conditions probably reduced yields. He said almost a third of the south Louisiana crop was planted by March 10, but then the weather changed.

Frequent rains reduced pollination, he said.

“Cloudy conditions and high night temperatures at flowering were probably the biggest factors,” Harrell explained. “We had some nights where the low might have been 75 degrees, so it was above that for much of the night.”

Yields probably were decreased by 6 to 7 percent before the August flooding, and the overall yields were down 12 to 15 percent after the flooding, he said.

But Harrell said he expects rice acreage to remain about the same next year.

Pest pressure was mixed.

AgCenter entomologist Mike Stout said many farmers had fields infected early with the South American rice miner, but he said it didn’t cause yield losses.

The insect was first discovered in Louisiana rice in 2004 on a few fields, but it wasn’t found again until this year. It’s possible next year the pest won’t be a problem, Stout said.

Stem borers, including the Mexican rice borer, were found on the station, and now the Mexican rice borer has been found in every rice-growing parish in southwest Louisiana. “They were really high early and not so high late season,” Stout said.

As for disease, “it wasn’t as bad as it could have been,” said AgCenter plant pathologist Don Groth.

Groth said he feared it would be a bad year for sheath blight because the disease was moving on plants rapidly. He also started receiving some reports of blast. “Then it got hot, and the fungal diseases just dropped out,” he said.

Groth said he thought the heat would set up conditions for a bad outbreak of bacterial panicle blight, but that didn’t happen either.

Cercospora was light in the first crop. “We saw quite a bit in the second crop,” Groth said

Andrew Granger, AgCenter county agent in Vermilion Parish, said farmers were taking advantage of dry fall weather to prepare their fields for the 2017 crop.

“They’re out there doing a lot of land work. For the most part, they’re working like they are going to be planting a crop,” Granger said.

He said it was obvious by midseason that the Vermilion Parish crop would be off from 2015, but yields were affected even more by the August flood.

Granger estimated the average yield in the upper 30- to lower 40-barrel range (108-144 bushels, or 39-65 hundredweight). But some rice that didn’t flood had yields in excess of 50 barrels (180 bushels or 81 hundredweight), he said.

The second-crop yields also were off. “It’s going to be down considerably from last year. Much of it wasn’t harvested, maybe 25 to 30 percent of it,” Granger said.

Second-crop yields were 10-12 barrels (36-43 bushels or 16-19 hundredweight), with low quality also, he said.

Vermilion Parish farmer Christian Richard said without the flooding, yields would have been comparable to the 2015 crop, about five barrels to seven barrels off his average (18-25 bushels or 8-11 hundredweight).

The season started with good planting weather, but it quickly turned rainy and cloudy. “The rice wasn’t growing. It wasn’t responding to anything,” Richard said.

He said he got 60 percent of his crop harvested before the August flooding, and he wasn’t able to resume harvesting until three weeks later. He had difficulty restarting the harvest because he had no dry ground where trucks could be loaded.

“We spent a lot of money on limestone and rocks to make a place to load. When you try to get the rice and you can’t, it’s a double whammy,” Richard said.

Richard said he will continue with his usual plan for rice, soybeans and crawfish. “The years 2012 and 2013 were pretty good, so you take the good with the bad,” he said.

Todd Fontenot, AgCenter county agent in Evangeline Parish, said farmers in his area estimated the average yield at 39 barrels (140 bushels or 63 hundredweight). The acreage of second crop is down because farmers cut their first crop too late or because of rutted fields. Others had decided against a second crop and chose to get fields ready for crawfish sooner, he said.

Even before the flood, it was obvious the crop wouldn’t be as good as previous years, Fontenot said. But fields that didn’t flood had good yields, including one on his own family farm that yielded almost 50 barrels, he said.

Fontenot doesn’t anticipate much change in acreage next year. “I don’t think there’s going to be many changes. I don’t think we’re going to see a major change one way or the other,” he said.

Vince Deshotel, AgCenter county agent in St. Landry Parish, said some fields were total losses from the flood, while fields that didn’t flood had good yields. Quality suffered in rice harvested after the flood.

Deshotel said it was expected late in the season that yields would be down this year by eight barrels to 12 barrels (29-43 bushels or 13-19 hundredweight) before the flood because of excessive heat and rain during pollination.

Some farmers may shift to other commodities in 2017. “Those producers who can grow other crops will if the prices don’t increase,” Deshotel said.

Jeremy Hebert, AgCenter county agent in Acadia Parish, said the year got off to a good start with early planting. “We had a decent start with perfect conditions.”

But then rainfall interfered with the late planting, and rice suffered from hot weather. “It got hot early, and it stayed hot,” Hebert said

Harvest in Acadia began in mid-July, and more than 75 percent of the rice was cut by the time the flooding occurred, Hebert said. Some fields that flooded in August were never cut.

The Acadia Parish Extension Office flooded, and Hebert and his staff had to relocate in Crowley.

The flooding persuaded some farmers not to try a second crop, Hebert said. Yields from the second crop ranged from eight barrels (29 bushels or 13 hundredweight) to almost 30 barrels (108 bushels or 49 hundredweight), he said. But the average was probably a bit more than 20 barrels (72 bushels or 32 hundredweight).

Acadia Parish acreage will probably stay about the same. “Next year, they’re not going to change much,” Hebert said. “They are getting some ground work done.”

Acadia Parish farmer Mike Hundley said 2016 was “a year you want to forget, for sure.”

Before the flood, he said, 20 percent of his crop was harvested but yields were down from his average crop by five to seven barrels (18-25 bushels or 8-11 hundredweight).

Some fields were flooded long enough for some rice to sprout, and Hundley suspects fertilizer applied for the second crop was lost to flooding.

Cutting the last 20 percent took weeks, he said, and trailers had to be loaded on the highway because of wet ground.

Second crop yields were in the teens to 20 barrels, “a far cry from a few years ago,” Hundley said. “But everything is a far cry from a few years ago.”

Frances Guidry, AgCenter county agent in Jefferson Davis Parish, said farmers weren’t expecting a lot from this year’s crop before the flood.

“It wasn’t the greatest, and then the flood didn’t help. Everybody was saying it was a mediocre year,” she said.

The areas around Thornwell and Lake Arthur had the worst flooding, and many were unable to grow a second crop. Rice acreage in the parish could decrease unless prices rise, Guidry said.

Cameron Parish farmer Paul Johnson said he will not look back on the year favorably. “It’s been a really tough year, to put it mildly,” he said.

He agreed that cloudy, wet weather interfered with pollination. “I think that led to yields that were down quite a bit,” he said. And his second crop suffered because he was unable to put out fertilizer because of floodwaters.

“Our water continued to rise for two to three weeks,” Johnson said.

After the flood, Johnson still had 30 percent of his crop in the field, and yields dropped by 12-15 barrels (43-54 bushels or 19-24 hundredweight) with lower quality.

But Johnson is looking to next year, and he has started preparing land for the 2017 crop. “We’re ready to close the books on 2016, and do a little hunting,” he said.

North Louisiana rice farmers had their flooding problems at planting time.

Keith Collins, AgCenter county agent in Richland Parish, said most planting was completed by mid-May, a month later than usual. “A lot of our rice was later than usual,” he said.

That put the crop’s development during the hottest time of the summer, he said, and pollination occurred during cloudy, wet weather.

“It had a detrimental effect on the yields. Overall, folks were a bit disappointed,” Collins said. “Everybody said it looked good, but when they put the combine in the field, the yields just weren’t there.”

He estimated the yields at 150-160 bushels an acre (42-44 barrels or 68-72 hundredweight), off by 5 to 10 bushels (one to three barrels or eight to 16 hundredweight) from last year.

Collins said the current farm bill is favorable to rice, and for that reason he doesn’t expect an acreage decrease. But acreage could increase if prices increase, he said.

Holly Ridge farmer Scott Franklin said flooding in March hindered a lot of farmers. “We actually were lucky and got to plant fairly early,” he said.

The rice crop was damaged by heat. “The rice crop looked beautiful until boot stage and heading, and that’s when I could tell we had some blanks,” Franklin said.

Franklin, who farms 1,200 acres and owns an elevator and commercial dryer, said the market for rice is slim. “My main concern right now is where in the world am I going to sell it and at how bad of a price?” he said.

Franklin expects to see some rice acreage move to cotton. “I do think we are going to have farmers running on a thin margin who aren’t going to get financing,” he said.

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