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Freeze expected, Mid-South rice in jeopardy

Freezing temperatures are expected across the Mid-South over Easter weekend. The region’s rice farmers are justifiably worried.

“As of last Friday (March 30), we were about 17 percent planted on 1.1 million acres,” says Chuck Wilson, Arkansas Extension rice specialist. “I’m guessing 10 to 12 percent has emerged.”

A very warm, dry March allowed Mid-South rice farmers to plant much earlier than usual. Wilson says the downside of such a warm March is now obvious.

“This freeze has got everyone worried — I’ve taken a bunch of calls on it. At this point, the growing point is hopefully below the ground and the soil can act as a sort of insulator against any freeze.

“If one hits, the rice plant tops will be sensitive and may be discolored or burned, depending on how cold it gets. The plants may also be stunted until warmer weather returns. Hopefully, there won’t be a freeze much below the soil line and the growing points will be safe.”

Even in south Louisiana, freeze concerns abound.

“As far south as Lafayette, where I am, the prediction is for a near-record low,” says Johnny Saichuk, LSU AgCenter rice specialist. “The record was set in 1926 at 35 degrees. We’re expecting to approach that if not break it.”

As in Arkansas, much of Louisiana’s rice crop has been planted and emerged. The rice that’s in the greatest danger is in the process of germinating or is just emerging from the ground.

“The rice that’s at three- or four-leaf can probably be blanketed with water and should be fine. We’ve had rice survive freezing temperatures doing that.”

Saichuk says rice that’s been drilled into dry soil and hasn’t yet germinated “is the safest of the bunch. Farmers should leave it alone and after it warms back up, flush the fields and it’ll be fine.

“What I believe farmers should do — and this is a judgment call — is to put some water on rice fields, particularly in good, level fields.”

Usually doing so is a bad idea.

“But if it gets cold like we’re expecting, the water will act kind of like a thermal flywheel. It’ll store energy better than if we leave the rice exposed.”

Again, Saichuk isn’t making a blanket recommendation (see his comments below).

“Putting water on rice isn’t a definite, but my gut feeling is that’s what should be done. If nothing else, by wetting the soils up it’ll turn darker and therefore absorb more heat. If I had rice fields, that’s what I’d be doing.”

Wilson says his major concern is in north Arkansas where there are forecasts in the low 20s. “It’s one thing to get down to 30. It’s another to dip to the low 20s.”

Another concern is forecasts have gone from one night of freezing weather to three nights. If that happens, “it’s just a continuing, building stress on the crop,” says Wilson.

“In the event of a freeze, we should hope for warm temps and sunshine during the day to warm the soil back up. That appears to be what is expected.”

Wilson says if seed has just been planted and hasn’t emerged, there’s much less to worry about.

“The fields that have emerged are in most jeopardy. More than any of it, I’m worried about the rice that’s just spiking through, that’s just broken the soil.”

Saichuk says he’s never seen a situation “where we’re abnormally warm and then abnormally cold. That’s definitely different.

“I remember an April Fools Day a few years ago when it snowed in Shreveport. But that front was very quick and didn’t cause sustained low temperatures.

“I do remember guys in Allen Parish telling me they had to break ice in rice fields and the crop did fine. Back when Allen Parish used to have a lot of rice, it was well-known for planting rice extremely early.”

With Cheniere and Clearfield 131 banned from Mid-South fields in 2007, seed availability was already poor. Any freeze damage and replanting could leave farmers with few choices.

“There does seem to be enough rice seed,” says Wilson. “The amount isn’t a problem — it’s having enough of the varieties farmers want. If there are any Clearfield 161 fields that need to be replanted, you’re probably out of luck.”

Saichuk says he’s spoken with farmers at length about the seed situation. “Some tell me they’re sitting on a bit of seed to see what happens this weekend. They’ll see if they need to use it to replant or plant additional rice acreage. We can’t lose stands or our rice acreage will go to other crops.

“One good thing is some varieties have much better cold tolerance than others. If I had planted Clearfield 161 or Cypress, I’d be much less concerned.”

And any rice that isn’t killed by freeze, should recover.

“If the rice comes through this, it will be damaged but it’ll come back and be fine. Rice is resilient.”

To help Louisiana rice farmers prepare for the expected cold temperatures, Saichuk sent out a mass e-mail on April 6. Among his comments:

“Rice at greatest risk is rice that has been planted a few days and is just coming up or just germinating. If rice at this stage is shut down for any length of time, recovery will be difficult plus it will open the door to seedling disease and insects like the seed midge.

“Rice that is at the one-leaf or greater stage of growth will likely suffer as much injury from desiccation due to the north wind as it will from cold temperatures.

“The only solution I can suggest to reduce the likelihood of injury in either situation is to put a water blanket on the field. In some cases this will not be possible because the ideal situation is to establish a very shallow flood, hold it until Monday then let it go. The time lag to do both is a problem.

“Furthermore, not everyone agrees that this is the best practice. It is definitely a judgment call. Next week or the week after we will know what we should have done.

“The principle is to provide a thermal flywheel. We want the water to warm up and stabilize the temperature during the night. Clear water, while cold initially, will actually warm up very quickly because of the greenhouse effect. It will also allow light to penetrate to the seedlings, helping them carry on photosynthesis to a limited degree.

“Muddy water, while warmer on introduction, prevents photosynthesis (which is why it is better for weed control) and does not benefit as much from the greenhouse effect.

“If rice has been drilled into dry soil — too dry to promote germination — I recommend doing nothing. Let the seed sit there until it is warmer, then flush if we do not get the predicted rainfall. It should be the rice at least risk.

“It will be a tough balancing act to add water to newly planted, partially germinated or just emerging rice to provide some thermal barrier without also causing seedling injury from deprivation of oxygen and light.”


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