The Arkansas rice crop in 2014 was one for the record books, although not always in a good way. “Growers I’ve spoken with that have grown rice for 30 or 40 years all say they never experienced a year like 2014,” says Jarrod Hardke, Arkansas Extension rice agronomist. “That was really bolstered when you look at the month of July — the coldest average temperature on record for that month. The whole season really trended towards being the coolest ever.”
Besides the cool weather, 2014 was tough on rice growers because of the timing of the wind and rain events. It meant a lot of workarounds.
Even so, “when it came to season’s end, most people were pretty happy with their crops. There were plenty of growers who said it was their best crop even though they had to work a lot harder for it.
“A lot of our rice yield is set by pre-flood nitrogen. With the wind and rain, that was out of sync in many fields. It was hard to get those applications out at the proper time on dry ground. Those delays probably hurt our yields a bit so it’s surprising our end result turned out so well.”
There was a benefit of all those early, light rains, though: they kept herbicides activated. “So, even with the delays the weeds were being suppressed. A lot of fields got almost unbelievable residual control from products that typically don’t last that long. Bob Scott (Arkansas Extension weed scientist) has commented on the extremely clean crop — a few escapes not withstanding — that we headed into the heart of the summer with.”
Rice producers did have to fight a lot of disease pressure. “It was a terrible year for blast — probably the worst since 2004. However, most producers did a good job of fighting that battle. There were a few situations where fields were left without management and that proved to be a mistake. I never saw any of them but have gotten reports that some of those fields were later walkaways. Blast can really take a field out.”
Sheath blight also showed up in some fields. “It doesn’t have the potential for loss like blast but does need to be watched especially in cool, mild conditions. Milder daytime temperatures, heavy dew-set every day and routine rain showers set you up for disease in rice.”
There were also a lot of small diseases that popped up here and there. Rick Cartwright, former University of Arkansas plant pathologist, “refers to those as ‘nibblers.’ Those are the diseases that aren’t the big ones that will jump up and knock a crop out. You know, a field might have a complex of little things that don’t appear to be much at first — things you might not think need to be treated — but they just take little bites out of the grain yield until they turn into something very damaging.”
Rice stink bugs
As the state’s crop moved into heading, “rice stink bug numbers were definitely lower than in the last few years. While we’re managing that pest based on thresholds, it’s expected that you’ll probably have to spray twice and hope not to spray a third time. In 2014, most people only sprayed once. Some folks didn’t spray at all.
“Gus Lorenz (Arkansas Extension entomologist) has noticed that for at least the last 20 years, rice stink bugs work on a 10-year cycle. Based on what we saw last year, hopefully we’re coming out of the peak rice stink bug numbers and are on the downhill decline. It would be nice to settle into a few years of lower stink bug pressure.”
As for harvest, Hardke can’t recall a better stretch. “That had a lot to do with the NASS estimate of 168 bushels per acre in the state. That equaled the record average yield set in 2013.
“When we really got to the teeth of harvest, there was no rain and the wind didn’t blow. We made tremendous progress getting the crop out. There wasn’t a lot of rice that went down on us even with the late wind events. Add into that the quality was excellent.”
Coming off such a great rice cropping season, what does that portend for 2015? Will rice acreage hold steady or go up a bit?
“Talking with folks up and down the state, most of what I’m hearing leads me to believe rice acres will be level to slightly up. That would put us in the 1.5 million acres range.”
The FSA reported Arkansas had 1.47 million acres in 2014. “Look at the report, though, and there was 100,000 acres reported as prevented planting. So, in theory, we could have been closer to 1.6 million acres if everyone had gotten their crops planted.
“Right now, looking at commodity prices, rice has fallen off just like the other crops but maybe not quite as severely. There is, of course, the chance that the rice price could drop further. Prices for all major crops have collapsed recently as we fall off the historic highs of the past few years. One glimmer of hope are reduced input costs to help offset some of the sting of the lower rice prices.”
The fall of diesel prices also plays into the favor of rice. The preliminary 2015 budgets “are going to look a lot better with the fuel cost so far down. And that’s a massive deal for rice producers.”
Urea prices have also dropped. Last year, urea was at $480 to $490 a ton and this year it appears that ton will be about $380 or $390. “This will not have as drastic an impact as fuel prices, but every little bit helps.
“Lately, I was very happy to see soybean prices rebound some. The bean price got below $9 at one point. At that point, I was very concerned that Arkansas would go huge into rice. Believe me: I want the state to grow as much rice as we reasonably can. But we don’t need to go crazy. Some ground just isn’t suitable for rice.
“I’d love for us to have a ‘nice’ year like we did the early 2000s — a warm season with an occasional soaking rain; a year where everything seems to cruise along. Our growers are due an easy season, so I hope it’s this one. Fingers crossed.”
For 2015 “we need to get back to the basics – it’s not show yield, it’s show money. By that I mean throwing the kitchen sink at a crop to hit a magic yield number will be our doom – evaluate how each dime is spent and grow the crop to maximize profit, not maximize bushels. There’s a difference in those two philosophies, and chasing bushels without strict attention to your bottom line may put you out of business.”
What is Hardke hearing about acreage decisions with the real possibility that Cuba’s market will be opening up? How is that shaping perceptions and plans?
“That is a really interesting development and plenty of folks in the industry are monitoring it closely. Cuba was our largest rice export market before we shut it down and the turn toward it opening back up has the potential to really shift things. To emphasize how large that potential market is, I believe Cuba is still the second largest importer of rice in the Americas.
“Roughly, we stay in the neighborhood of 50 percent domestic use and 50 percent exports with some regular fluctuation, but domestic use is growing. If Cuba opened up that would be a big draw out.”
The obvious question: will that opening happen tomorrow or in five to 10 years? Regardless, when it opens up, “I have to believe Cuba would be a big pull for our growers and would push prices up and our rice acres would follow. That is a legitimate possibility.”