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Easter cold damaged Delta crops

While Easter celebrations touched farmers' souls, Mother Nature stretched an icy finger to touch their soils. Now, a week after three straight days of freezing Mid-South temperatures, the full effect on extremely early-planted crops is emerging.

Before the freeze arrived, most bets were laid on corn sustaining the least damage while wheat and rice would fare poorly. It hasn't turned out that way.

“Some of our corn fields are done, finished,” says Jeff House, Missouri Extension agent in New Madrid, Mo. “Seed for replanting has already been ordered. The larger, earlier, shallow-planted corn is ruined.

“The later, deeper-planted corn is showing recovery. Corn that was just spiking through is coming back fine, no problem. We've got both extremes: fine to total loss.”

During the Easter cold front, several Bootheel locations had temperatures reach 24 degrees. Prior to that, New Madrid County was “probably 85 percent to 90 percent done planting corn. That was a little ahead of the rest of the Bootheel.”

The day after Easter, House split many growing points and left many fields “thinking, ‘Maybe this can be saved.’ But we revisited those sites (on April 12) and, unfortunately, the plants are going backwards. The necrotic tissue is deeper and the growing points are beginning to get brown and mushy.

“And even if some of these fields came back out, I don't think it's worth keeping them. They'll be stunted and gapped up. It's a huge risk to try to save something so damaged.”

Across the river in Tennessee (where lows of 18 degrees were recorded), Angela Thompson is with a group of researchers scouting freeze-damaged corn and wheat.

“We had a lot more corn planted in March this year than is normal,” says the Tennessee Extension corn specialist. “All plant parts above ground simply froze back.

“We're checking growing points and many fields still have live plants. The fields planted very early in March, the fields planted conventional-till or those without much residue on beds appear to have been hit harder than the later-planted, smaller corn that was planted a bit deeper.”

Some Tennessee farmers are already gearing up to replant.

“There are fields that are obviously not going to make it,” says Thompson. “Farmers will have to make decisions and then try to find seed. They'll see what inputs have already gone out to see what all the options are.”

The majority, though, “will have to wait until (around April 20) to see how their corn fields pan out. We're certainly still hopeful that a large percentage has retained growing points that will make it through this cool weather.”

For Jason Kelley, it has been a week of melancholy. “The fallout from the freeze continues to show up a little more every day,” says the Arkansas Extension corn and wheat specialist. “It just keeps creeping along.”

And warm weather has yet to push back into the state. Every day that “browned out, freeze damaged” corn isn't getting good sunshine is a lost opportunity to reverse damage.

“Without a change in weather quickly, I'm afraid for many corn fields. I think it'll be later next week before we know the full extent of the problems. Some corn that looks pitiful still has potential. But the current nighttime temps — into the 30s — aren't doing us any favors.”

Kelley says northeast Arkansas is the worst for freeze damage but there are pockets of damage everywhere north of I-40.

Until April 13, William Johnson, Pioneer agronomist in Arkansas, thought most of the corn crop “was okay. But now, we're finding a lot more dead plants. There's a bunch of fields that looked okay earlier in the week that are in bad shape now.”

Johnson says one farmer calls what's happening to his corn “the banana peel effect.” The farmer's corn was at V-4 to V-5 when the freeze hit. Since then, “it's rolled over and it looks like a banana peel lying on the ground.”

The location of corn damage is interesting to Johnson.

“It's odd because there can be corn fields planted in the same variety across a road from each other. One's fine and one's dead.

It seems that's due to elevation — even a 3-foot elevation makes the difference. And fields close to a big water area or river seem to be less damaged than fields just 300 yards away.”

In northern Mississippi, where temperatures reached around 30 degrees, it's still too early to tell the extent of any injury to the corn crop. However, Erick Larson, Mississippi Extension corn and wheat specialist says he “fully expects our corn to recover well from any freeze injury. Most growing points were below the ground.

“In the areas where the corn was most mature — where the growing point may have been above ground level — say from the Greenville area south, the temperatures weren't cold enough to defoliate the plants. I don't believe it got cold enough to kill the growing points.”

Of the Delta states, Louisiana fared best during the cold front.

“The coldest temperature in the state that I saw was about 35 degrees,” says David Lanclos, LSU AgCenter corn specialist. “But the forecasts were brutal. Truth is, before Easter weekend, I was dreading coming to work on Monday. Once the early-morning temp reports came in, we knew we hadn't sustained serious injury like other Mid-South states. We dodged a big one.”

Crops didn't come out unscathed, however. “We've got some sick-looking fields. We have frost damage but, at this point, it appears to be mainly cosmetic.

“The big story with us is moisture. Portions of northeast Louisiana remain very, very dry. The good news is the forecast looks favorable for rain — let it fall.”

The outlook for much Mid-South wheat is dour. Bootheel wheat that was headed out “or large-boot/split-boot — and we had quite a bit in those stages — I don't have a lot of hope for,” says House. “We've also got some wheat where the head was still pretty far down in the plant. In those fields, I'm not seeing any damage yet. But that doesn't mean it's not there.”

Current cool temperatures have held wheat's growth back. Until it warms up, “it's hard to tell what the plant is capable of. Some wheat suffered frozen stems. Much of it is already on the ground, lodged.”

House says on Easter morning a grower in New Madrid County used an infrared thermometer on his wheat canopy. “He shot it at 26 degrees. Twenty-eight degrees is critical temperature for wheat. I'm worried that the anthers and pollen suffered damage.

“We also have three verified soil temperature readings of 32 degrees. Many farmers say the soil crusted, frozen at least a half inch deep.”

Kelley knew it would take a couple of days for freeze damage to “really show up” in Arkansas' wheat crop.

“We knew there'd be trouble in northeast Arkansas where it got down to the low 20s. Damage was inevitable. But from there, every day, the damage line has dropped further south. I don't know where the line will finally stop. But damage has even reached around Helena and over to Pine Bluff.”

Wheat in Tennessee's southern tier of counties “isn't too badly damaged,” says Chris Main, Tennessee Extension wheat specialist. “But get north of Jackson, or I-40, and the wheat is in bad shape.

“If heads were up, they froze. The wheat in boot stage, or close to that, seems to have frozen around the first node from the ground. It's falling over as more wind hits it.”

Damage to Mississippi's wheat became apparent a few days after Easter.

“We're in the field this afternoon checking wheat in the north Delta,” says Larson. “Some wheat I've seen has severe to moderate injury. It certainly got cold enough to cause sterility. There was significant damage to heads in the milk stage — the earliest stage of grain filling.”

Overall, Arkansas' rice is in a lot better shape than other crops, says Chuck Wilson. “Considering what could have been, our rice fared remarkably well,” says the Arkansas Extension rice specialist. “Lots of the rice I've seen since Easter is putting out new growth and is green and seems to be recovering. Temperatures reached as low as 24 degrees — for at least one of the three nights it got below freezing.”

A small percentage will need to be replanted — Wilson says, at most, 5,000 to 6,000 acres. “Those (ruined) fields are mostly in northeast Arkansas, although I know of several in Poinsett County.”

Consultants Nathan Buehring has spoken with say some Mississippi rice appears sick but hasn't died. Overall, the Mississippi Extension rice specialist isn't worried.

“Prior to the freeze, most of the (emerged) rice was below Stoneville, Miss. I did have some rice around Stoneville — the farthest north I know of any that was up — that was pushing two-leaf stage. It got down to 32 degrees there and it appears we may lose 30 percent, or so, of the stand. Yesterday, some of the seedlings appeared to be dying.”

Temperatures in northeast Louisiana dipped only to around 35 degrees.

“That's very unusual because in the southern part of the state, we hit 37 degrees and had sleet,” says Johnny Saichuk, LSU AgCenter rice specialist. “They were a couple of degrees cooler and never saw the moisture we did. Normally, I expect a 10-degree differential in cold fronts like that.”

Saichuk has seen some cold temperature injury. “All in all, though, most everything should come out of this fine. Look for the new leaves. Even if the rice looks ragged, if new, green leaves are coming out, it should be all right.”

Before the cold front arrived, if someone had asked Wilson for a prediction, “I'd have said, ‘The corn will be okay and the rice will take it on the chin.’ From what I've seen, just the opposite happened.”

On April 12, Wilson checked rice for a producer who is also growing corn. “His rice is standing up, has green tissue and looks like it'll survive fine. It has leaf injury indicating a stress, but it'll be okay. Then, just down the road, his corn is flat out on the ground. Considering what everyone thought would happen that's surprising.”

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