Planting season acres remain a mystery in Northeast Arkansas

by George Jared ([email protected]) 638 views 

How Arkansas farmers, and especially those in Northeast Arkansas, will approach the 2019 growing season is anyone’s guess, Craighead County extension agent Branon Thiesse told Talk Business and Politics. Low prices, bad weather, and an ongoing trade war with China ate into farmer’s profits in 2018, and one crop in particular, soybeans was especially hit hard, he said.

There were several soybean fields in Craighead County that hadn’t been harvested as of the last week of January – an unheard of event, Thiesse said. There were also 600 peanut acres that had yet to be harvested during that time period as well. The legume crop has blossomed in recent years from 300 acres to more than 8,000 this year, and some or all of those acres could be lost. Thiesse hopes this season doesn’t stunt the crop’s rebirth in this part of the state.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said of the unharvested crops. “This has never happened since I’ve worked here.”

Soybeans are Arkansas and Craighead County’s top crop with around 100,000 acres, but Thiesse said it may be too early to predict if those acres will drop in the county, he said. Prices have been on the lower end the last several months, but have held despite the ongoing trade war with China, the largest soybean importer in the world, he said. Prices hovered around $9.16 per bushel in late January. If they drop much lower than that, then producers may look to other options.

Those options might be limited, however. Prices for cotton and corn, two other top crops remain volatile. The rise in the state’s poultry industry could trigger a slight upward price spike for corn, so that could be a possible option, he said.

One trend that could expand in Craighead County in 2019 is growing rice in rows as opposed to growing it in flooded fields, he said. Rice rows have steadily grown in recent years as weed control technologies in those fields have improved. The number of rice row acres has jumped from 40,000 in 2017 to more than 100,000 acres this year, according to the University of Arkansas Agriculture Extension Office.

The reason some farmers prefer the row method is input cost savings. A typical rice acre has about $750 in input costs. Growing rice in rows can save a producer up to $70 per acre, per season. Rice in rows can be grown in former soybean beds, meaning they don’t have to be prepped like typical rice paddies. This can save a farmer many hours on their combines and other equipment, and those fields don’t require the levee systems, and are irrigated with pipes, much like other row crops. Yields this last harvest season in rice row fields were about the same as in flooded fields, Thiesse said.

Another issue farmers will face will be weed control, and one product used to kill them, dicamba. State officials are formulating a plan that would allow for dicamba applications, with restrictions, through May. The plan hasn’t officially been approved, but the debate over the volatile herbicide that can cause damage to other crops when it drifts continues to rage.

In recent years, weeds have become far more resistant to chemicals used to kill them, Thiesse said. The problem is growing, and it’s one reason why many farmers have fought to use dicamba in their fields, he added.

Continued rains, snow, and ice have kept fields drenched, and that could raise a new problem as the new planting season rapidly approaches. Deep ruts, caused by farm vehicles operating in fields, need to be filled, and continued bad weather is making it hard for farmers to ready those fields for planting.

“We need a stretch of dry weather. We’ve never really gotten any breaks long enough to dry up a lot of our fields,” he said.

Arkansas farmers were predicted to plant about 3.3 million soybean acres and an estimated 3.25 million were harvested, according to the United States Agriculture Department’s Statistics Service Information (NASS). That was a 250,000 harvested acre drop from the previous year. Farmers were able to produce about 50 bushels per acre, a one bushel per acre drop from 2017.

There were a few bright spots for Arkansas soybean growers in 2018, Jeremy Ross, extension soybean agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture said. Disease and insect pressure were comparatively low. The 2017-2018 winter had spells of freezing weather significant enough to beat back the redbanded stink bug, an invasive insect that had made significant progress into the northern echelon of the state after several mild winters in a row failed to reduce populations of the subtropical pest.

Ross said although there isn’t enough data to suggest how growers will respond in the 2019 growing season, chances are that soybean acreage will likely decrease in favor of other crops, especially cotton, which is enjoying solid sales right now.

“I doubt we’ll drop below 3 million acres, though,” Ross said.

Arkansas farmers planted 1.44 million rice acres in 2018 and harvested 1.422 million, according to NASS. It’s a nearly 300,000 acre uptick. Farmers produced 7,500 pounds of rice per acre, a 10-pound increase from 2017.

Corn farmers planted 660,000 acres last year and harvested 650,000, a 55,000 acre upswing from 2017. Farmers were able to produce 181 acres per bushel, a two bushel per acre drop from 2017.