Drought bigger concern than flood for agriculture 2011

Linda F. Benedict, Guidry, Kurt M.

News Release Distributed 06/20/11

The drought and heat are turning out to be more of a problem for Louisiana farmers than the flood. Although it’s too early to predict the effects on crop yields and livestock production, 2011 is definitely not going to be as good as 2010.

“There’s still time for some of the later-planted crops such as soybeans, cotton and sugarcane,” said Kurt Guidry, LSU AgCenter economist. “They’re a little more drought-resistant than corn and grain sorghum.”

Flooding from the Mississippi River was expected to be much worse than it turned out to be, although it has been devastating in some areas with some farmers losing as many as 1,000 acres.

Overall, the flooding affected about 40,000 to 50,000 acres along the Mississippi River and the Morganza Spillway.

“We don’t have all the numbers yet,” Guidry said, adding that farmers who had crop insurance will recover some losses, depending on their level of coverage.

The drought alone might not be so much of a problem if it weren’t for the high, sustained heat. Production costs keep going up when farmers have to continually irrigate. Fuel costs continue to be high.

Although he’s not sure how many farmers have irrigation systems, Guidry estimates that it’s about 30 percent to 40 percent. The numbers are gradually growing, he said.

“Most of the irrigation is in the northeast part of the state,” Guidry said.

Drought stress is evident on soybean plants across the state, said Ron Levy, soybean special at the LSU AgCenter Dean Lee Research Station in Alexandria. Plants are shorter; leaves are curled, and some are starting to turn yellow, he said.

“Typically by now we start to see soybeans shading out the middle so they help to prevent weeds from germinating or competing with the soybean crop,” Levy said.

Because most of the beans are grown without irrigation, there will be major yield losses unless there is rain. The acreage planted in soybeans will be down from 1 million to about 800,000. Some farmers are planning to plant late along the river where seep water had prevented planting. But this is risky, Levy said.

“A general rule is that a half bushel is lost for every day that planting is delayed past the first week of June,” Levy said.

Prices for soybeans continue to be strong.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to harvest a crop to where producers will be able to benefit from the higher prices,” Levy said.

Rice farmers who pump surface water from canals onto their fields are finding too much salt in the water, and rice cannot grow with too much salt in the soil, said Johnny Saichuk, rice specialist at the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station in Crowley. Lack of rain causes the saltiness in the soil.

Saichuk estimates up to 50,000 acres of rice could be affected by too much salt. A total of about 480,000 acres were planted in rice this year. Farmers with wells are not experiencing the salt problems.

Saichuk is working with the Corps of Engineers to see if diverting water from the Vermilion River could help the situation.

So far, the drought has held down disease in rice, and it looks to be a good season for some rice farmers, Saichuk said, adding that commodity prices are not as high as for other Louisiana commodities, such as corn, soybeans and sugar.

Comparing crop condition ratings at this time last year to this year shows Louisiana is significantly down with cotton and corn, Guidry said.

“At this time last year 71 percent of the cotton was in good to excellent condition. This year’s its 44 percent,” Guidry said, adding that the numbers for corn were 73 percent of the crop was in good to excellent condition in 2010 compared to 48 percent this year.

“The longer the drought conditions, the greater the probability of yield impact,” Guidry said.

Another problem looming for corn farmers is aflatoxin, a disease of corn that thrives in sustained, dry heat.

Louisiana cattle production is being hurt by the continued drought and high heat as well. Louisiana’s cattle industry is forage-based. Cows and calves are predominantly raised on pastures, and their diets are supplemented with hay when pasture is unavailable. The drought has limited the amount of pasture available for grazing. Alternatives to hay, which include corn or other supplemental feeds, are expensive.

“Cattle producers have to use the hay they had stored for the winter,” Guidry said, adding that the problem is compounded by an average-to-poor hay-producing year last year.

“Some producers may be forced to sell cattle because they cannot feed them,” said Karl Harborth, LSU AgCenter beef specialist.

When mama cows are not getting enough to eat, they don’t produce as much milk. Consequently, the calves don’t gain as much weight and are not as valuable when it comes time to sell them out-of-state for finishing.

“This year's drought has long-term effects on Louisiana's cattle industry,” Guidry said.

Linda Foster Benedict
6/21/2011 2:32:32 AM
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