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Harvest damage will raise '03 costs

Rains that dashed many producers' hopes of a decent crop are still causing heartache as Mississippi growers try to complete the harvest and repair fields damaged in the process.

Rains began in late September and stopped harvest statewide for most of the row crops. The delay caused many crop losses in the fields and reduced the quality of what remained. In between showers, growers did their best to harvest from the soaked fields.

The result was thousands of acres of severely rutted fields, and some of the state's crops were still in the field at the end of November.

What should have been record yields in many places turned into average yields with reduced quality. Adding further insult to injury is the increased cost of producing next year's crops caused by the repairs that must be done to the fields this winter.

“In parts of the state, this is probably the wettest harvest season anyone can remember, and certainly the worst harvest conditions I've ever seen,” said Will McCarty, cotton specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service.

McCarty estimated 75 percent of the state's cotton fields have some rutting, and about 30 to 40 percent of it is serious. Fields will have to be repaired before spring planting, and McCarty said it costs $10 to $12 an acre per trip across the field with equipment to smooth the land.

“We have obviously lost yield and lost price due to low quality, but things you don't think about are the expense of repairing the damage to fields and the expense of repairing the damage to the harvest equipment,” he said. “Working these machines out in the mud and wet conditions adds tremendously to their maintenance costs.”

McCarty said many of the state's reduced-till and no-till growers have gotten rid of the equipment they would normally use to repair the fields and will have to hire someone to get the work done.

Others are still trying to get crops harvested and will later worry about reforming the land for spring planting. McCarty estimated the cotton crop was 90 percent harvested by late November. Typically, 99 percent of the crop is out of the fields by that time.

Soybeans, too, suffered from being left in the fields as the rains kept harvesters away. Alan Blaine, Mississippi Extension soybean specialist, estimated at least one-third of the crop saw some degree of damage from weather and deterioration.

“By Sept. 10, soybean growers were approximately 50 percent harvested, but they were able to harvest only about 20 percent more in the next 45 days,” Blaine said. “A lot of the crop stayed out in the fields for a very long time.”

When farmers were finally able to harvest some beans, the harvest equipment left serious ruts in the fields. He estimates more land preparation will need to be done this year than has been done in the last 15 years.

“I wish it wouldn't rain a drop until the first of February,” Blaine said. “We need an opportunity to get in the field and work some of these ruts out.”

Blaine said the next few years' crops could be impacted by this year's harvest woes.

“March and April are some of our wettest months of the year. If we do not get a window to repair rutted fields between now and planting, that will delay planting, making the crop later, and we could be in this same situation next year,” Blaine said.

Joe Street, Extension rice specialist at the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, Miss., said rice was about 80 percent harvested before the rains came, but the last 20 percent of the fields were rutted pretty badly in harvest.

“Growers will have to do heavy disking to fill in the ruts,” Street said. “Most of the rice is rotated with soybeans, and most of the damaged fields will go into soybeans.”

Erick Larson, Extension corn specialist, said corn was spared because it was nearly all harvested by the time Tropical Storm Isidore came through Mississippi in September.

“The short-term implications are that growers will look at corn more favorably next year since they were able to get it out of the field before bad weather came this year and last year,” Larson said. “Corn has retained quality and tolerated abnormally wet conditions much better than the other row crops in the state.”

Larson said the 2000 corn crop set a new record yield of 130 bushels an acre, and this year's yields were just three bushels below that record. He expects corn acreage to increase in 2003.

Bonnie Coblentz writes for Mississippi State University Ag Communications.

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