With a rice harvest that never paused because of rain and rice grains that didn’t require artificial heaters to dry them down, this was a harvest season unlike any Ronnie Levy has ever seen in his decades of working with rice.
The season was marked by unprecedented hot and dry conditions but started off cold with two late freezes that stopped planting.
“We saw low emergence and reduced seedling vigor in those cold conditions. That led to seedling disease and stand reduction,” Levy, LSU AgCenter rice specialist, said. “Rice herbicide injury also affected many acres due to rice not growing because of cold weather during the early season.”
Farmers did manage to plant more acres this year than in recent years. Levy said rice acreage in 2023 was 461,000. The previous year, the state had 415,000 acres.
Levy said the cooler spring gave way to hot and dry weather, which made for good growing conditions, with farmers seeing less disease and weed issues than normal.
“We had some trials that were supposed to be sprayed with a fungicide when it reached the disease threshold, and we never reached the threshold because of the dry, low humidity conditions,” he said.
Another benefit to dry weather Levy mentioned was farmers were able to put out nutrients and fertilizers at the right times because rain didn’t stop any flights for the airplanes that deliver the chemicals to the fields.
High nighttime temperatures were a downside to the growing season. Levy said it affected pollination and caused sterility in some fields. Farmers also had to run the pumps on their wells most of the season to keep water on their fields.
Weather conditions did affect milling quality, Levy said. Some of the rice was already dry and brittle when it was harvested.
“We like to harvest rice at 18% to 22% moisture and then dry it down after harvest,” Levy said. “Many fields were harvested at 13% to 16% by the time they could be harvested.”
Farmers typically blow hot air on their rice to dry it after harvest, but Levy said with temperature so high, some farmers just blew air on the grain that did require drying and didn’t have to turn on their heaters.
The dry conditions put farmers in a good position for next year’s crop. Harvesting on dry land keeps the fields in better shape for subsequent planting or growth.
Levy said farmers planted more medium-grain rice this year. Louisiana farmers plant mostly long-grain varieties. He said this increase was driven by uncertainty in California’s rice production.
“There is an increase in demand for medium grain, and not knowing what California was going to be able to do prior to this year because of water issues there, it encouraged people to plant more medium grain to try to satisfy that market.”
Levy said even with the record heat, rice growers fared better this year than in 2022 when a wet harvest affected yields. He said next year is anyone's guess.
“With the high fuel, fertilizer and input cost we are seeing now, I don’t think anyone knows what next year’s rice production in Louisiana will look like.” Levy said. “Last year we had an extremely wet season and this year a completely dry season. What will next year’s surprise be?”