Soybean and cotton acres surge in Arkansas; rice production still expected to plummet

by George Jared (gjared@talkbusiness.net) 376 views 

Arkansas rice farmers will still likely harvest a little more than 1 million acres this fall despite damaging flood waters earlier this spring that impacted much of Northeast Arkansas. But yields will almost certainly be lower, and the projected acreage will be 300,000 acres less this year than in 2016, rice agronomist Dr. Jarrod Hardke told Talk Business & Politics.

State officials could have a tabulation about the totality of the damage from the floods this week, too, he said. It’s been estimated the damage totals could top $335 million.

“It hasn’t been an ideal year in a number of ways,” Hardke said. “I expect to be underwhelmed by our yield numbers.”

Hardke doesn’t like to estimate yields until crops come out of the field, but he said he expects the rice yields to hover in the 150 bushels per acre range. Besides the massive floods along the Black River in Pocahontas that blanketed the region in late April and early May, other factors will contribute to lower yields, he said. Nitrogen applications need to be done when the ground is dry, and the spring was unusually wet, he said. Weed control has been tough this year, and there have been reports of late-breaking grasses in fields.

The floods and heavy rains impacted more than 100,000 acres of rice production, according to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, costing the state’s agriculture industry an estimated $34.9 million. Much of the financial impact was due to the fact that input costs, including seed, fuel and fertilizer, had already been sunk into the ground before the rains. Damaged plants, lost levees, and other factors will also factor into the lower rice yields, Hardke said. Arkansas had record setting yields in 2013-14 when farmers harvested about 168 bushels per acre from their fields.

Lost rice and lower prices forced some farmers to plant more soybeans, cotton, and peanuts.

About 3.55 million acres of soybeans have been planted this year, a 13.4% (420,000 more acres) as compared to 2016. Soybeans likely absorbed some acreage originally intended for rice or corn, which either suffered from prevented planting or was lost to flooding after planting, soybean agronomist Jeremy Ross said.

Economists and agronomists with the Division of Agriculture estimate that more than 121,000 acres of soybeans were lost due to May rains and floods. Overall, the flooding was estimated to have caused approximately $175 million in crop losses in the state, with most of the damage impacting the northeastern third of Arkansas.

“Conditions for planting have been spotty,” said Ross. “We had a really good early start, followed by some pretty wet conditions into April and May in certain areas. Planting has been so strung out that we’re currently seeing everything from beans in the late stages of reproduction to beans that are just now being planted.”

Arkansas cotton acreage also saw a significant leap over 2016 numbers, as growers planted approximately 440,000 acres of upland cotton, an increase of more than 60,000 acres.

In late March, the United States Department of Agriculture prospective plantings report offered a more optimistic estimate. At the time, Arkansas was expected to have 500,000 acres. Periodic rains in late April and May fouled the crop’s optimal planting window, cotton agronomist Bill Robertson said.

“The last three days of April, and the first seven days in May, nobody had a tractor in the field,” Robertson said. “That’s kind of the heart of our planting window. We’d get two or three days of planting here, two or three days of planting there. And we were so busy trying to get out in front of pig weed and keep it off what we already had planted, we just did not get all the cotton planted in Arkansas that we wanted.”

Nationwide, cotton acreage increased by about 20% from last year, to approximately 12.1 million acres.

Peanuts, a crop reintroduced in Northeast Arkansas about seven years ago, is experiencing a slight resurgence even though some fields were lost in Lawrence and Randolph counties because of the floods. Surrounding farmers in surrounding counties planted a little more to make up the difference. Peanut acres have ballooned by 25% this year to 30,000 acres. A quality crop in 2016, and buyers’ doling out competitive contracts this year compelled more farmers to take a chance on the tasty legume, plant pathologist Travis Faske said.

“Peanut prices increased a bit to about $500 a ton,” Faske said. “But peanuts are more like a vegetable than a row crop — growers contract with a buyer such as Birdsong or Golden at the beginning of the season, and based on the grower’s previous performance, a buyer may ask them to grow another 300 or 400 acres, if they’re up for it.”

Arkansas’ planted wheat acreage remained unchanged from 2016, holding at 195,000 acres, according to USDA. Corn acreage in the state dropped by more than 10%, from 760,000 acres in 2016 to 680,000 acres. Nationwide, corn acreage dropped 3%.

The state’s sorghum crop has all but disappeared in the last two planting cycles. In 2015, Arkansas growers planted approximately 450,000 acres of the grain; in 2016, that number fell precipitously to just 47,000 acres, and again in 2017 to approximately 25,000 acres, USDA reported. Market prices and insect pressure caused the decline, wheat and feed grains agronomist Jason Kelley said. Sorghum exports to China have dropped 54% since 2015.

“It’s a huge, dramatic drop that was probably to be expected, considering the grain price compared to a couple of years ago,” Kelley said. “This year, grain sorghum was $3 a bushel, compared with $5 a bushel a couple of years ago.”

Sugarcane aphids have become more numerous, damaging the crop.

“Sugarcane aphids had been pretty nasty over the past year,” Kelley said. “That’s the number one concern, insect-wise, anymore. They’re easy to scout for, but they’re difficult to control. Some fields may require more than one pesticide application. So it adds expense to the crop — a crop for which there may not be a lot of profit potential anyway. You get the two of those together — aphids and a big market price drop — and the profitability just isn’t there,” he said.

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