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Compounded by drought: Expensive crop grows more costly

If the superb 2004 growing season ended with a champagne party, the 2005 season began with a hangover and serious case of cottonmouth. And the headache lingered.

“Weather was a seriously limiting factor for Arkansas' 2005 rice crop,” said Chuck Wilson, Arkansas Extension rice specialist. “When you get only a couple or 3 inches of rain over 10 months, it makes growing any crop difficult.

“Not only were we dry, but we had to use much more water to irrigate. In late April, I was driving down the road and saw beans being watered. Even then, I had a bad feeling about how stretched things would be for the rice crop.”

And, of course, producers were paying twice as much for fuel to pump. That combination — “without even touching on the higher fertilizer prices” — meant a much more expensive rice crop.

Because of the dry weather, Wilson had many more calls on salinity problems. “The drought seemed to exacerbate it,” said Wilson, who spoke at the Jackson County production meeting in Newport, Ark. “I tested many wells — two or three in the Cache River area just south of here — that were almost seawater. The salt levels in those wells were four or five times greater than our maximum threshold for safe use in rice production.”


Despite drought and adversity, USDA's early August projections showed Arkansas set up for a record rice crop. But then Hurricane Katrina ripped through some of the state's rice, mostly along the Mississippi River. Several weeks later, Hurricane Rita had her turn.

“At that time, about 35 percent of the crop was still in the field. A large percentage of that was laid on the ground. Lodged rice slows harvest. It takes up to four times longer to harvest. That requires up to four times more diesel to get the crop in, not to mention the wear and tear on the combines. And up to 15 percent of the yield can be lost.”

Because of the hurricanes, the state's projected yields were lowered. “Still, we ended up with a pretty good crop overall. As of November, the state had about 1.65 million acres, a record. That broke the previous record set in 1999. Over the last five year or so, we've been around 1.5 million acres.”

Will Arkansas acreage remain there?

“I don't think so. We'll probably decrease acreage. Some forecast us going down 10 percent. That would only knock us back to around 1.5 million acres. Other projections say the state will be down 30 percent to about 1 million acres. My guess is we'll probably see a 15 to 20 percent drop to put us between 1.3 million and 1.4 million acres.”

Medium grain acres were down about 5 percent in 2005. In 2006, Wilson believes that acreage will rise to around 150,000. As long as the current price premium continues, “producers will consider planting Bengal or Medark.”

Yields and varieties

As far as yields, the state has been steadily climbing since the mid-1990s. The last five years have seen five top yields.

“A lot of things contributed to that. For the most part, we've had good weather patterns — particularly in 2003 and 2004. But also playing a big part is we've learned a lot about management and now have better varieties.”

Last year, some 37 percent of the state's acres were planted in Wells, “a good, consistent, high-yielding variety across many environments. Even as far back as 2001, it was planted on over 30 percent of the state's acres.

“In order to find a variety planted on that significant amount of acres for that many years in a row, you have to go back to the Newbonnet days. That should help explain how strong Wells has been. And I still think a lot of acres will be planted in Wells in 2006.”

Clearfield acres should also increase, said Wilson. “There's enough seed now to plant all our acres in those varieties. CL161 was planted on nearly 19 percent of the acres in 2005. Add CLXL-8 on 2.5 percent and that pushes the state's Clearfield acreage to over 20 percent.”

Francis should hang in at about 8 to 10 percent of Arkansas' acres. “The producers growing it are doing well with it. It isn't for every soil type so it won't ever be a huge player. But it will continue to have a solid showing.

“Last year, some growers grew both Francis and Wells. Hot, dry years are good for Francis. Wells likes cooler, wetter weather.”

Cheniere, a new semi-dwarf, long-grain out of Louisiana, will pick up more acres — likely from Cocodrie. In 2005, it was on about 7 percent of the state's total acreage. Wilson thinks it will be on 15 to 20 percent in 2006.

“Cheniere is very strong. For those who've historically grown Lamont, Cocodrie and Cypress, it's a good fit.”

Paler shade of green

About two weeks after midseason, Wilson began getting calls from worried producers. Their CL131 hadn't “greened up” properly and they worried the fields' nitrogen was depleted.

“Yes, it's possible to run out of nitrogen, and you may need another shot. But some varieties don't turn a deep green, and the Clearfields — along with Cheniere — are among them. Some of these new varieties are just a paler shade of green, even when healthy.”

Before hitting the rice with a shot of fertilizer, Wilson cautions producers to look at other factors. “If you've got a thick canopy, that's not an indication the nutrients are limited. When nitrogen is lacking, generally speaking you're going to have a stunted plant and reduced tillering. There can also be spotting or lesions on the leaves.”


Wilson and colleagues have been doing research on 7-inch versus 10-inch row spacing. They've seen anywhere from a 5-bushel to a 20-bushel yield advantage in favor of the 7-inch spacing.

“That's in contradiction to much of the data from 15 years ago. In 2005, we did the spacing study again at four locations. Averaged across all, there was a 10- to 15-bushel yield advantage for the 7-inch row. That was irrespective of seeding rate. We weren't able to compensate for the yield by increasing the seeding rate.”

At the request of consultants and growers, Wilson added a broadcast seeded treatment to the mix. Overall, it didn't perform as well as the 10-inch spacing.

“There are some advantages to broadcasting. You can get across more acres quicker, but it lagged in this study.”

Seeding rates were studied for Bengal, Francis, Clearfield 161, Medark and Wells. “We found about 67.5 pounds per acre was the best rate. That's about 30 seeds per square foot. I'll probably recommend changing from 40 seeds per square foot (the current recommendation) to 30 seeds. Of course, that's when there's an excellent seedbed, good planting conditions and things are right for planting.”

Pointing to a 2004 study (using Bengal, Medark, Wells and Cocodrie), Wilson encouraged producers not to drain rice too early. “There was anywhere from a 10-bushel to 20-bushel yield disadvantage when fields were drained two weeks after 50 percent heading. That's compared to the recommended 28 days after 50 percent heading.”

In 2005, researchers again saw yield decreases. “Don't get in too big a hurry to drain the water off. I know there are extenuating circumstances sometimes, but if possible, you need to hold that water for 28 days after heading.”

Input costs

From 2004 to 2005, seed costs held steady at around $25 per acre. However, fertilizer costs went from $57 per acre in 2004 to $100 in 2005.

“Herbicide costs increased a bit. That wasn't as much a function of product cost increases as it was harder to control weeds in 2005. The dry weather caused that.”

Fungicide and insecticide costs were up just a bit from 2004 to 2005 while irrigation costs went from $41 per acre to $93 per acre. Tillage costs also increased substantially.

“Bottom line, the total direct input costs went from $260 in 2004 to $430 in 2005. That's almost $200 more in one year.”

To make the number balance, producers had to make $200 more rice per acre. That's hard to do when the average yields were nearly the same: 171 in 2004 and 170 in 2005.

“The breakeven price for 2004 was $1.83. In 2005, breakeven was $3.56. The season average price for 2004-2005 was about $3.20. That means a lot of fields lost money in 2005.”

Rice, admitted Wilson, is tough to budget in 2006. Based on a $3.30 crop price for conventional rice in a 75/25 crop share, the current breakeven yield is 172 bushels. The state average is about 147 bushels.

“That means a lot of folks aren't cutting 172 bushels.

“One avenue to generate more income in this climate is to renegotiate lease contracts. Compared to a 75/25 cost-share, an 80/20 cost-share at a $3.30 crop price means the breakeven yield drops to 160-bushel rice.

“If you own the farm, the breakeven drops to around 125 bushels.”

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