Arkansas farmers are dealing with a stop-and-go planting season, frequently halting operations as rain forces them to wait for fields to dry out.
While the planting of crops such as rice, corn and sorghum is running behind five-year averages, overall efforts this year to get seed in the ground are mostly running ahead of 2013 - a year that also got off to a slow start but saw crop yield records thanks in part to a relatively mild summer.
As of Sunday, growers had planted 52 percent of their corn acreage, 29 percent of rice acreage and 12 percent of sorghum, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Last year at this time, growers had planted 57 percent of their corn, 21 percent of rice and 16 percent of sorghum. Growers are just starting to plant soybeans and cotton, at 7 percent and 1 percent,respectively, but are still ahead of or matching last year’s pace.
With the weather pattern over the past several weeks, farmers have been able to work their fields only a few days at time until rain forces them to stop and wait for the fields to dry out enough to continue planting, said Jarrod Hardke, a rice extension agronomist with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.
“If it’s dry enough, people are putting rice in the ground,” Hardke said. “Forty-eight hours of planting and getting everything in and then another rain and you’re out for five to seven days. And then you get get two days dry enough to plant rice in. So, it’s all gone in primarily in bunches.”
For the week that ended Sunday, rainy weather left growers on average with 3.7 days suitable for fieldwork, according to the statistics service. In the week before, they had 3.6 days. Also, some farmers reported that cool weather has hindered the emergence of the crops that have been planted.
How the delayed planting affects rice and other row crops will depend on summer heat, according to Hardke.
In its outlook for the spring and beyond, the National Weather Service noted that March was the 14th coolest on record and that temperatures have remained slightly lower than average through mid-April.
The Weather Service also noted that 2013’s average summer temperature of 77.7 degrees was the 98th warmest on record - well below the 80.9 degrees in 2012, which also saw record drought, and the 82.7 degrees recorded in 2010, years that both ranked among the hottest recorded. Also in 2012, high spring temperatures allowed planting for many crops three to four weeks earlier than normal. But in late August, farmers scrambled to harvest ahead of Hurricane Isaac, which damaged crops still in the field.
“While the summer of 2014 may not be as pleasant as a year ago, long stretches of sweltering heat are not on the menu at this time,” the service wrote in the outlook.
In 2013, Arkansas farmers set production yield records despite a planting period that ran even later than this year’s. Last year’s production records included corn yields averaging 187 bushels per acre; soybean fields yielding 43.5 bushels per acre; rice yields averaging 7,560 pounds per acre; cotton averages that hit 1,149 pounds per acre; and sorghum yields reaching 102 bushels per acre.
This year, growers seem to be a bit more prepared for a return to normal temperatures, Hardke said. That’s where the concern is coming from regarding planting delays.
“A return to more normal summer temperatures could easily push yields back down,” Hardke said.
Jason Kelley, a wheat and field grains agronomist with the UA Division of Agriculture, agreed that good summer weather last year offset potential problems posed by late planting.
So far this year, farmers are trying to plan around the potential for a warmer summer, he said, since the perception is that the earlier crops are planted, the better the yields. But he acknowledged that’s not always the case.
“Last year, we were in panic mode because everything was late,” Kelley said. Then growers had “record yields on most of our crops.”
Forecasts call for a more normal summer, both in terms of heat and precipitation, said John Robinson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in North Little Rock.
This spring did get off to a cool start and there’s another cool spell forecast for next week, Robinson said Wednesday. Both Kelley and Hardke said the cool weather in March and April slowed the early growth of many of the crops that did get in the ground, but they expect that plant conditions will improve as the weather warms.
“For the summer, the current outlooks says things are likely to track above normal for June, July and August,” Robinson said. “That would imply to me that there might be some 100-degree days in there, but probably not a big long string of them where we’d get into a day-after-day-after-day of really high temperatures.”
Rainfall in the state has been running below average, and it is hard to predict for the rest of year. Robinson said that people sometimes think that a dry summer could be offset by a tropical storm hitting the state in August or September. However, he said, an El Nino weather pattern that could develop in the Pacific Ocean generally reduces the chances for hurricanes.
“Right now, it looks like it will be a pretty reasonable year after we finally get through these cool spells,” Robinson said.
Jeff Welch, chairman of the UA Lonoke County Cooperative Extension Service office, said hot days aren’t as much of a problem as hot nights. While irrigation used by many Arkansas row crop farmers can help keep plants cool on hot days, frequent overnight temperatures above 80 degrees can rob plants of the energy they need to reach their full growth potential, he said.
But because row crop agriculture generally is closely tied to the weather, farmers must be flexible, he said.
“We’re so well positioned, I think, that we can plant once we get the really good conditions, we can plant a lot of stuff in this county within a seven day period,” Welch said.