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Drought forcing tough decisions

Arkansas is parched and Mother Nature doesn't play favorites. “It's June 21, and we haven't had rain in eight weeks,” said Steve Higginbothom, a producer and state senator from Marianna, Ark. “It's been so dry here that you can still see the disk-opener groove from my planter in April. There hasn't been enough moisture to seal the crack.

“That's amazing — I've never seen it this dry so early. It's a dire situation, and there aren't any big rains in the forecast.”

In 1980 — a drought year remembered with dread — Higginbothom's farm went 63 days without rain. However, that drought didn't begin until mid-July.

“A few farmers around here have received scattered rains. But in the counties I'm familiar with — Phillips, St. Francis, Lee and Monroe — no one has had significant relief in a long, long time. It's becoming desperate.”

Phil Tacker is trying to help producers with irrigation as best he can. But without water, “there's a limit on what we can do,” said the Arkansas Extension irrigation specialist. “For example, because of the drought, soybeans are stunted. They've got to be a reasonable size before you can levee-water them. I understand some producers have been able to irrigate some teensy beans and get water on and off them quickly — 12 hours, or so. But that's not the norm, and it's a risky practice.”

If Arkansas experiences a typical July, Tacker said, surface water sources won't be dependable. “Unless we get some long rains, groundwater pumping is going to take off. And we know there are areas of the state where well levels will start falling fast. In spots, I'm hearing they're already falling.”


Several recent storm systems quickly moved across parts of Arkansas. On June 17, showers fell on much of the southern half of the state. But the rain deficit is now so great such showers shouldn't “fool us into thinking we can get by without watering properly,” said Chris Tingle, Arkansas Extension soybean specialist.

“Our soybeans are very stressed. Water is tight and pumping costs are high, but this crop isn't growing off as well as it should. We haven't had enough moisture for growth. Plants have not been moving for the last two months. It hasn't been a good start, farmers are hurting and field conditions are becoming very serious.”

In areas receiving rains or being irrigated, Tingle has seen a rapid response in crop growth. That allows him guarded optimism.

“Historically, if you go south of the Arkansas River — into counties like Deshay, Chicot and Ashley — they get an early crop in. They had some beans go in the first of April.”

As in other areas, that region needed water badly. Then, in early June, rain found the region. Almost immediately, the crop jumped in size. Soybeans there are now at R-2 to R-3, typical for this time of year.

“That leads me to be hopeful for the northern half of the state. But moisture there has come in the form of hard rain in short bursts. That's not what we need. We need a few days of slow, soaking rains to alleviate the deficit we're under.”

Irrigating soybeans is an obvious option. But with every crop needing water, it's difficult “to get producers to pull off rice and onto beans. The rice crop has been very demanding of irrigation water. I've spoken with growers who claim they've already spent $50 per acre on water for their rice. And they don't have a permanent flood on yet.”

One producer recently told Tingle that without a significant rain — 2 or 3 inches in the next couple of weeks — he'll go broke. “He set up his system strictly on surface water, using tailwater recovery. He's gotten away from wells. But now he's almost out of water and hasn't even put a permanent flood on his rice. Soybeans are right next to the rice, and I know they're not getting any water until the rice is taken care of.”

On top of the drought, young soybeans are inundated with pests like thrips and flea hoppers — dry weather pests. “A lot of our crops are secondary hosts to pests. Many pests would rather feed on weeds or something in the woods than a soybean plant. But as dry as it's been, the wild hosts have died. A stink bug looks up, sees soybeans and says, ‘They look tasty.’”

Stink bug numbers are at treatment levels in southeast Arkansas. Thrips numbers have been “out of this world. We've had thrips in beans before, but they weren't considered a major pest. Showers would knock them off, or they'd chew on leaves a little. The crop normally compensates for thrips. But this year, that's not the case. This crop is being hammered by them.”

On many operations, stunted, beleaguered crops are candidates for plows. Tingle has fielded “literally hundreds” of calls from growers contemplating a replant.

“I hate destroying a stand. Looking at the economics of it, this crop has definitely been hurt. It's suffered, and we're probably not going to get our best yields. But according to research data, it's unfavorable for us to disk the ground and replant in hopes of emergence the first week of July. Even under perfect conditions, we'd be in the 20- to 25-bushel range. And that doesn't take into account the added expenses of replanting, seed costs and all the rest.

“At this point, most of the decisions growers and I are working on are economic more than agronomic. You have to consider what's been invested in the crop so far. Yeah, we'll be dinged on yields, but in the end, we have to decide where we can make the most money.”


For the last few weeks, Chuck Wilson has been rushing between rice fields, cell phone to ear. Problems abound.

“The dry weather has had an impact we've never seen before,” said the Arkansas Extension rice specialist. “It's never been this dry in April and May. The rice won't grow and respond. It was cold in April and dry in May. I don't know if this is the worst year ever, but it's certainly unique. We've had field trouble from Lake Village to Clay County. Producers are dealing with replant issues and low stand densities. It's just been a bad year, overall.”

The crop it is looking better after recent fertilization and flooding. “Most of it has begun growing now. We've got some fields at, or near, mid-season form.”

Problems frequently involve herbicides. “It isn't just one thing, but a number. Right after fertilization and flooding, herbicide problems hit. The rice is shocked with the flood and, if things are just right, the plants get sick.

“We've seen fields of Newpath injury on Clearfield rice. We've also had reports — unconfirmed so far — of other herbicides unexpectedly injuring rice. On some injured fields, we have a good idea what's happened: for instance, nutrient deficiency where phosphorus was put out in the fall to save some money. Also, we've seen Grandstand injury where water was put on too soon. For many injured fields, we don't have answers.”

With no rain, Clearfield rice must be flushed to activate Newpath. That's been troublesome for many producers.

“One producer was pumping out of the L'Anguille River and his reservoir just to keep his Clearfield rice flushed, and he ran out of water before reaching flood stage. He had to sink a well — an unexpected $22,000 to $25,000 investment.”

Also increasing costs is diesel near $2 per gallon.

There are other problems. “Some fields appear to be hurt by hydrogen sulfide toxicity. I'm not completely convinced that's what it is, but there's no doubt the rice is dying after flood. There's black residue on the roots, which is consistent with sulfide toxicity. But it seems too soon after the flood for hydrogen sulfide to be an issue.”

And then there's the lack of water. “It's only June and water is already an issue. There have been some rains (the third week of June), but I'm not sure how much help they've been. The Cache River has been too low to pump out of. The L'Anguille River, in places, is in the same shape. Some reservoirs are too low to sustain a season. In those cases, producers are already pumping wells.”

Wilson anticipates little relief. “The little showers aren't doing much. We need a lot of rain. Being 10 inches behind, we aren't likely to catch up between now and August.”

Many producers are pumping all day, everyday just to keep a flood on rice. “The main issue is how water will be spread around. Corn, soybeans and cotton are being watered early. We're sharing water with crops that normally don't require irrigation until later in June. We've been irrigating since the first of May. It isn't even the really hot, dry season; it's going to be hard to keep up.”


If the dismal growing season won't allow a smile, perhaps the state's wheat crop will provide the briefest grin. Hit with major rains last fall, producers were unable to plant normal wheat acreage. What was planted looked paltry until rains stopped in April.

“Really, that's what wheat needs and dry weather resulted in yields that were much better than expected,” said Jason Kelley, Arkansas Extension corn, wheat and milo specialist. “You hear the good news first — I'm getting reports of some 80-bushel and 90-bushel yields. Two wheat verification fields made around 95 bushels per acre. Those were in Ashley and Desha counties in the southeast part of the state.”

Unfortunately the corn crop isn't faring as well. In the southern half of the state, corn is silking. In mid-June, Kelley walked fields in full pollen shed — “you come out of those fields yellow and itchy.”

“Right now, water is by far — by far — the most pressing issue. Corn, when it's silking, uses the most water — close to a third of an inch daily. When it really gets warm in the next few weeks, the crop will be sucking water up in a big way. If we don't get any rain and temperatures are in the 90s or higher, furrow-irrigated corn will need water every five days. If a producer has rice, too, it could get shaky.”

The northern half of the state has been especially hard-hit. “It's very dry there. Producers have had to water corn five to seven times already. Normally, they'll water two to four times the whole year. It's been so dry, some knee-high corn was watered.”

Corn that's silking will need water for at least another month to six weeks. By late July, it “ought to be far enough along that the kernels will be mature and the starch layer will have moved down. If the starch layer has moved halfway down and you've just watered, that should be enough to reach black layer.”

One positive in corn is a lack of southern rust. Unlike last year, “I haven't seen any southern rust. We do have some common rust, a less aggressive problem. But what I've seen is far below treatment levels.”

The USDA has estimated Arkansas has 90,000 acres of milo. “It's up and going and most looks pretty good. Some of the earlier-planted sorghum is getting to boot stage. Weeds have been trouble because we haven't had an activating rainfall for herbicides. So there's some grass in fields.”

Rock and hard place

Water demands have been tremendous. One solution, a tropical storm or hurricane, may usher in new problems.

“One thing — maybe the only thing — that could pull us out of this pattern is a tropical disturbance,” said Tingle. “But, with the threat of Asian soybean rust, we don't want that. A hurricane would bring water in, but it also could bring rust spores. And a hurricane has to land somewhere. I don't want anyone on the Gulf hurt. But at this point, our only chance to be back level on water is a hurricane or tropical storm.”

What is Kelley doing between field trips? “Probably the same thing producers are doing: keeping tabs on the radar and praying.”

(Editor's note: For Arkansas' current cotton situation, see “Arkansas cotton desperate for water,” Page 9, June 17, 2005, Delta Farm Press or on the Internet,


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