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Optimum peanut harvest proving tricky this year

Determining peanut maturity or the optimum time for digging is always an important consideration for producers at harvest time, but it's receiving more attention than usual in Alabama this year.

“This is probably the most non-uniform peanut crop we've seen,” said Kris Balkcom, Auburn University Extension peanut specialist, during a hull-scrape clinic held in mid-September in east Alabama.

With the hull-scrape method, a pod maturity profile board is used to determine if peanuts are ready for harvest. It is based on color changes in the middle layer of the peanut hull as the nut matures. The colors begin with white when kernels are watery and poorly defined. They change to light yellow, dark yellow, orange, brown and then to black when the kernels are completely developed.

“We had a lot of dry weather in Alabama this year, and peanuts have not been on a normal schedule,” says Balkcom. “Generally, when peanuts come out of the ground, they start fruiting at 35 to 40 days old. This year, they may have laid there for 60 to 70 days before they started fruiting, so it's a challenge to determine the optimum time for digging.”

A grower can determine the best time for digging by knocking off the hull and looking at the color, he says. “But in a year like this, when it has been dry for so long after fruiting, you still need to shell them out.”

One of the growers who brought peanuts to the clinic was Robert Walters, who farms in east Alabama. In mid-September, he was about 10 to 15 days away from digging his crop. “Our irrigated peanuts look good, but our dryland crop is mediocre at best. We hope to get 2 tons from our irrigated crop, but you never know until you're finished,” he says.

Dry weather had caused a slight delay in maturity, even for irrigated peanuts, says Walters.

This is Walters' third year for growing peanuts, in an area of Alabama that is fairly new to the business of peanut production. “I'll keep growing peanuts and keep them in the rotation. We made good crops in our first two years, and it has improved our cotton crops as far as reducing nematode pressure,” he says.

Another area grower, George Holt, said his peanuts had good vine growth, and that a portion of the crop was ready to dig. Others were about two weeks away.

“All our peanuts were planted at the same time, but when they received showers determined the digging time. All our peanuts are dryland, and we were fortunate to get a few showers. All in all, our peanuts won't be as good as last year,” says Holt.

Area Extension Agent Leonard Kuykendall says determining optimum maturity is one of the most important aspects of peanut production. “It's very important for final yields and grades. It can mean a difference in 500 pounds per acre. It also may save growers a fungicide treatment on the back end of the season. Every dollar is important, especially this year,” he says.

Area Contract Extension Agent Jeff Clary adds that if growers dig too early, they could lose as much as $50 per acre per day. “And if they dig too late, it can cost them that much or more. Because of the dry weather this year, digging dates can be erratic, and each field is different because of rainfall at different times during the year,” he says.

The entire state of Alabama has been extremely dry this year, with most counties falling into the “exceptional” category as rated by the U.S. Drought Monitor. “Southwest Alabama has fared better than anywhere else in the state,” says Balkcom. “It depends to a large degree on which field you're in because of the spotty nature of rainfall this year. Last year was dry in Alabama, but his year has been different. In 2006, we established a stand and then went through a dry period during early summer. Then, it started raining into fall and continued raining through about harvest time. This year, we didn't establish a stand in every location. We haven't had consistent rainfall throughout the state this year — everything has been scattered showers.”

Some growers, he says, will need late-season showers to finish maturing their peanut crops. “Those peanuts that were planted in May and came up at the end of June are still a long ways from being ready to harvest,” said Balkcom in mid-September. “A big percentage of this year's crop is at that stage. The first frost could determine how late we'll go. Typically, we get a frost at the end of October. If we don't this year, our harvest could go through Thanksgiving.

“In southwest Alabama, it's not so unusual for growers to be digging peanuts into November. But southwest Alabama growers are further ahead this year than normal. Those growers usually don't get a frost until November.”

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