Rain again threatens to hamper harvests

Soybeans are offloaded from a combine during the harvest in Brownsburg, Ind., in this Sept. 21, 2018, file photo.

After nearly two weeks of clear skies and dropping temperatures, producers across Arkansas have increased their harvest tempo as fields have dried, but now the year's umpteenth weather system -- Hurricane Delta -- threatens to slow progress again, officials say.

As of Friday morning, modeling from the National Weather Service placed Delta's path as likely to be moving up the Arkansas-Mississippi border today, and into northern Mississippi and Tennessee by Sunday, gradually downgrading from a hurricane to a tropical storm to a tropical depression along the way.

The National Weather Service also predicts that the remnants of Hurricane Delta will pour varying degrees of rain on the southeastern half of the state, with Chicot, Ashley and Desha counties receiving 5 inches of rain or more through tonight.

As has been the case for several years in a row, the 2020 harvest has been stop-and-go, mostly because of large weather systems pushing rain and wind from the Gulf of Mexico into the Southern Plains and beyond.

The Laura weather system -- first a hurricane, then a tropical storm -- pushed through Arkansas in late August, and slowed both the sorghum and corn harvests, which had already begun, and effectively delayed the beginning of the rice harvest. On Sept. 21-22, nearly the entire state received between a half inch and 5 inches of rain, followed by a week in which the southeastern corner of the state received an additional 5 to 6 inches.

In the past two weeks, however, producers have made strong gains in harvesting rice, corn and soybeans, with each commodity seeing 10% or more of its total acreage harvested or more over the past week alone.

Eighty-six percent of the state's corn acreage had been harvested as of Oct. 4, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. That puts growers still behind the five-year average of 96% by this point in the season, but within sight of the crop's last leg.

Jason Kelley, extension wheat and feed grains agronomist for the University of Arkansas System's Agriculture Division, said corn producers in the state are trying to wrap harvest up this week.

"We are more than 90% done at this point, and we would make a good push at nearing completion without the rain that Delta is bringing," Kelley said. "Corn that has not been harvested yet really needs to miss this rain and wind, as many fields are lodging and will be more difficult to harvest if we get wind from Delta.

"Delta will also bring wheat planting to a stop," he said. "Wheat acres look to be up this year with increased grain prices, but that hinges on the weather allowing for planting."

About 70% of the state's rice acreage had been harvested by Oct. 4, according to the agricultural statistics service, with growers making the most of the first week of the month. Jarrod Hardke, extension rice agronomist at the Agriculture Division, said last week's above-average temperatures aided progress.

"We're making excellent progress on rice harvest right now," Hardke said.

"While we're still behind the five-year average, we should have over 80% of rice harvested by the time Hurricane Delta reaches the state," he said. "If the upper two-thirds of eastern Arkansas can avoid major rainfall amounts, we have an excellent long-range forecast after Delta leaves to try and finish harvest on a high note."

Soybean producers were still seeing the effects of saturated soils, however. Jeremy Ross, extension soybean agronomist, said the fields would need additional time to dry from September's penetrating rains.

"On the soybean side, we just need some dry weather to get the crop harvested," Ross said. "Prolonged periods of wet, cloudy weather could have some quality issues. We have seen some quality issues after Tropical Storm Laura, but most everything looks good so far."

Of the state's major commodity crops, cotton has struggled the most this season. As of Oct. 4, only 13% of the state's total acreage had been harvested, well behind the five-year average of 29% of acreage typically harvested by this point in the season.

"Cotton harvest statewide has just gotten rolling this week, and should be 20% complete as the rain bands from Hurricane Delta arrive," Bill Robertson, extension cotton agronomist, said. "This time last year, we were over 50% harvested.

"We need Mother Nature to be a little more kind to us," he said.

To learn more about extension programs in Arkansas, contact a local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.edu. Follow the agency on Twitter at @UAEX_edu.

-- Ryan McGeeney is with the UA System Division of Agriculture.