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Louisiana harvests in Katrina wake

As Louisiana producers move through the thick of harvest, yields haven't been a concern. Hurricane Katrina may have the headlines but the state's harvest season has been hampered by problems evident before her landfall.

“I visited with a farmer the Thursday before Katrina showed up,” said Johnny Saichuk, Louisiana Extension rice specialist. “He was wanting to harvest but could only use one combine and one cart. All of his trucks were full and there was nowhere to go with the rice. I hear stories like that all the time.

“Low Mississippi River levels before the hurricane kept barge traffic down and continue to. Plus, there's a glut of last year's crop still left in storage.”

Many farmers have no choice “but to truck rice around trying to find a spot to dump it. The elevators are trying to move the rice out but it's a slow process…Farmers' fuel costs are bound to be much higher. The hits just keep coming.”

Calling a lack of barge traffic and storage a “huge” problem, David Lanclos, Louisiana Extension soybean/corn specialist, said reports are “that extremely limited river traffic is picking up. That's good news. Before the hurricane hit, we had to leave crops in the field because there was nowhere to take them. Everyone with elevator space was booked up, combines were full and so were trucks.”

Hindrances to normal harvest also include a dearth of trucks to haul crops.

“Seasonal drivers can't make money with the high diesel prices,” said Lanclos. “That's led to a lot of farmers bob-tailing grain in. I've heard and seen that numerous times.”

Since the last week of July, the wait at elevators has been “incredibly long. The trucks would arrive and sometimes the elevator would shut down for hours — mechanical troubles or no barge available to off-load. So, by the time he could turn around, a trucker had worked a 16-hour day. Efficiency dropped to nothing.

“Hopefully we've turned the corner, though. In the past couple of days, I haven't gotten any calls from producers asking if I know where there's elevator space.”

If not solved, Saichuk points out river traffic problems will be exacerbated when harvest begins in the Midwest. “They're beginning to cut corn up there and are looking for barges too.”

As New Orleans and south Mississippi wallow miserably, Lanclos said the river traffic solution — rainfall to raise the river's level — is “kind of ironic. River traffic issues won't be fully solved until they get some rain up north. Loaded barges don't need to be scraping bottom when they move beside an elevator.”

South Louisiana's first rice crop has been harvested. In central and northeast Louisiana some 40 to 50 percent of the crop is yet to be brought in.

“Our yields are very, very good,” said Saichuk. “We're off to a record start and may end up with a record at the end.”

How did the hurricane affect the state's rice crop? “We had some rice in East Carroll, West Carroll and Concordia parishes that went down. Producers there are moving through fields slowly and that's making it more expensive. But the dry weather after the hurricane has meant we've not been prevented from harvesting. At least we're able to get the crop in.”

Downed rice in the state could have been much worse. As an example, Saichuk pointed to Morehouse Parish's 50,000 acres that were mostly unaffected by the hurricane winds.

As for the state's second crop, “I don't have a good feel on it. That has nothing to do with the hurricane, though. It has to do with economics and the lateness of the first harvest. Whatever the reason, I think we'll be way down on second crop acres. We may have half our normal second crop acres.”

Lanclos said soybeans in the state sustained very little, if any, damage from the hurricane. The same is true for the “little bit” of milo still in the field.

Some corn in the northeast part of the state was pushed down by 30 mile per hour winds. Still, “it's not flattened enough to keep combines from picking it up.

“I've heard yields of 30 bushels all the way up to 220 bushels per acre. I believe yields have stabilized on the later-planted crop — maybe 10 to 15 percent of the crop is still in the field — being cut now. Dryland yields will run 120 to 140 bushels. Irrigated acres will go 140 to 175 bushels. Statewide, we'll probably average 140 to 160 bushels.”

Even though Louisiana's late beans are in need of a rain, “I can't say enough good things about the soybean crop overall. We had a limited disease and pest year. Things have shaped up really well — especially in our early crop.”

About 200,000 soybean acres were planted in Louisiana in mid-May/early June. Those acres are currently in full seed fill and, in many cases, conditions are very dry.

Yield numbers on harvested soybeans are “phenomenal. Right now, at close to 50 percent harvested, we're averaging 40 to 45 bushels per acre.”

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