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Rains swamp crops

On Sept. 10, some 75 percent of Mississippi’s 800,000-acre corn crop had been harvested.

“That’s when rainfall really picked up in frequency,” says Erick Larson, Mississippi Extension corn specialist, on Oct. 16. “We’ve had very little harvested since then.”

The latest National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) progress report said 86 percent of the state’s corn had been harvested.

“So only 10 percent more has been brought in over the last five weeks. I think we’ve had five or six days farmers have been able to get in the field. Most of that 10 percent was harvested the last week of September into the first of October.”

While harvest was going on, Larson received reports claiming minimal discounts at dump sites. At that point, “the corn had weathered the rainfall and inclement conditions well. Of course, to put it mildly, it’s rained a lot more since then.”

Bolstering this is a fact-sheet released the week of Oct. 12 by Delta Council. The release says, “Large areas of the Mississippi Delta have received 15 to 20 inches of rain over the last 30 days with many areas receiving 25 to 40 inches of rainfall over the past 60 days since Aug. 15. In places this is anywhere from 400 to over 600 percent of normal.”

The Delta Council release also quotes Steve Martin, interim head of the Delta Research and Extension Center (DREC) in Stoneville, Miss.: “Crop conditions are rapidly deteriorating. The USDA weather service at Stoneville reports that October has seen the second highest level of rainfall ever recorded (record was set in 1941). Several previous research efforts have documented the days suitable for field work in the area.

“The most recent (Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station) Bulletin indicated that there is an ‘average’ chance of at least 41 days available for field work since Aug. 15 and a 95 percent chance of at least 31. Currently we have had only 30 (none of those in the last 14 days). So, we are in uncharted territory going back to 1965. The rainy conditions came in on a crop that was already late. The lateness of the crop was due to a combination of factors: wet weather at planting, cooler than normal temperatures in August, and very low levels of solar radiation (sunlight) in August as well.

“Despite the setbacks in the spring and late summer, crops were still positioned to be some of the best on record. Cotton, rice and soybeans all had excellent yield potential. As of Oct. 13, USDA reported that 15 percent of the corn crop, 57 percent of the soybean crop, 51 percent of the rice crop and 98 percent of the cotton crop were still in the field.

“However, with the rainfall in September and now October, producers that are able to harvest any of the remainder of their crop will be fortunate. The remainder of the corn crop will no doubt suffer from quality issues. The soybean crop will have significant quality (up to 50 percent of the value) and yield losses if harvested. Rice will also suffer quality and yield losses as much of the crop is on the ground. The cotton crop will suffer yield and quality losses as well with essentially no value being obtained for the cottonseed (two-bale cotton would normally have $150 per acre in cottonseed value).”

Delta Council points out it has rained “measurable amounts on 29 out of 57 days at the Stoneville rain gauge. If you say, conservatively, that half of those rain days caused a farmer to lose the ‘day after the rain’ as well, it is estimated that we have had only 15 days on average fit to harvest 4 million acres of cropland in the region since Aug. 15.”

Back in the corn crop, Larson says growers are beginning to see “a lot more” stalk lodging occurring. That’s happening as the stalks deteriorate and more recent storms have brought in stronger winds. Larson expects crop losses to begin accumulating.

What about sprouting?

“We’re continuing to see it. The last week of September, farmers were saying the sprouting and kernel damage weren’t excessive or substantial. Obviously, the problem has probably increased since then. That’s largely because of extremely frequent rainfall — including getting rains daily for four days in a row.”

When looking at an affected field, “you’ll usually see more sprouting damage than what actually ends up accumulating in the combine. I don’t know why that is. Maybe the kernels are being cleaned out by the combine, whether they’re not getting to the combine or something else. But, compared to what the eye picks out, the samples don’t show as high a percentage as you’d think.”

That’s why Larson hesitates to make assumptions about what grain quality will be “until combines start rolling through the fields again. But it’s fair to say we’ll probably have higher harvest losses associated with lodging, sprouting and other things contributing to deterioration of the plants and ears.”

Nearly all of Mississippi’s corn had reached physiological maturity by early September. Except for some of the later-planted corn and corn in north Mississippi, “it was mostly susceptible to deterioration around the first of August. So, it’s had to deal with six weeks, or more, of inclement conditions. Now, a lot of the growers in north Mississippi have well over 50 percent of their corn left in the field — that’s particularly true in the hills.”

Corn has big, hearty kernels and physiological characteristics that make it “a bit more immune to weathering compared to crops like soybeans and cotton, which are much more exposed. The shuck usually sheds water well, particularly if the ear tips over and it provides an ‘umbrella effect.’”

Despite the current gloomy circumstances all is not lost, Larson is quick to say. “From my experience — say, in 2001, and the year Hurricane Katrina came in — we’ve been able to salvage corn better than other crops. Now, if the corn begins lodging, it becomes a huge problem. If wet conditions continue with the stalks on the ground, it’s very hard for the soils to dry out, never mind getting a combine to pick up lodged corn. Plus, wet stalks don’t flow through a combine well.”

Best-case, Larson expects Mississippi’s corn harvest to begin again early the week of Oct. 19. “The forecast isn’t calling for much rain for a few days. Temperatures have also been very cool — 55 to 65 degrees, lately.”

Since Larson began working Mississippi corn in 1995, he’s seen years with difficult harvests. Not like 2009, though.

“In the past, there have been three or four weeks of extremely wet weather. But eventually that weather broke and we were able to salvage things.”

This year, though, it’s been incredibly difficult. “It’s mid-October and we’re still several days from being able to even get in the field to see what’s left to salvage. And unfortunately, it appears other crops are in even worse shape than corn.”

Larson’s best guess is “we’ll see losses at least 10 to 20 percent above what the crop had prior to early September. And that percentage could be substantially higher if lodging or sprouting continues to increase.”

As for Mississippi’s 13,000-acre of grain sorghum crop, about 50 percent was harvested prior to mid-September. “By now, I’m pretty sure what’s left is destined to be abandoned or fed to livestock locally. It’s unlikely to be fit for the commercial market.”

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