(Orange, Texas)

July 11, 2009

July rain late for many Louisiana crops

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As thunderstorms pounded much of south Louisiana last week, farmers and crop specialists wondered whether the rainfall was enough to stave off damage to their already parched fields.

LSU Agricultural Center experts said it's still too early in the growing season to know for sure how the drought and record-breaking temperatures in June and early July will affect the state's sugar cane, corn, rice and soybean yields.

Sugar cane, the state's No. 1 valued row crop, benefited from the recent heat wave, but not the rainless days, said Kenneth Gravois, resident coordinator for the LSU AgCenter's Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel.

"Sugar cane is a tropical plant and it loves the weather we hate — long, hot, humid days," Gravois said.

When there's a normal amount of rain, sugar cane can grow up to an inch a day, he said. Because rain is usually plentiful in the southern part of the state, few farmers have irrigation systems.

"In fact, the cultural practice is to take water off of the fields," Gravois said. "We can average 60 to 70 inches of rain a year. We're usually more worried about taking water off of a field and not putting it on one."

But it's still early in the growing season. "There's been some damage to the crop, but it's not too late," Gravois said. "Sugar cane is a resilient crop and it can bounce back. Everyone would breathe easier if we would just get some rain."

Al Landry, who has 2,000 acres of sugar cane planted on his farm just south of Plaquemine, said he is still optimistic his crop will do well.

"If we get the rain to come now, I think most of my fields will be OK," he said.

And though rain might help some producers at this point, rice farmers said that's the last thing they need now.

Prolonged rain at this point in the cycle would only hurt, said AgCenter rice specialist Johnny Saichuk. As the rice harvest draws near, fields need to be dry so that harvesting machinery can roll over dry ground, he said.

"You don't want to harvest wet rice," he said.

But Saichuk was quick to add that rice farmers were not trying to begrudge nearly every other crop farmer the rain they desperately need. "But if we get into a prolonged rainy period, it could be more harmful to us than the prolonged dry period was for rice. The rain that we needed was in June and that didn't happen."

Mike Efferson, a forecaster with the National Weather Service, said a strong area of high pressure stalled over the state in June and kept the rain away.

"It kept us hot and dry," he said.

That searing heat wave, also hurt the rice crop, Saichuk said. High nighttime temperatures hinder rice pollination and create an environment for one of the diseases that affects rice: bacterial panicle blight, Saichuk said.

"So we are concerned about that," Saichuk said. "There's nothing that we can do, though, except watch it and hope this weather pattern breaks."

Ron Levy, a soybean and small grain specialist for the LSU AgCenter, is projecting "significant yield losses" in a lot of the corn fields that weren't irrigated. But he said there is a bigger threat looming over this year's corn corp: aflatoxins.

Aflatoxin is one of the most potent toxic substances produced by a fungi, Levy said.

"It's one of the major things that can happen from drought stress," Levy said. "It's a major concern with the drought that we did have."

If it's found in the corn crop, "it can render (the corn) unsuited for interstate travel or sale for human consumption."

Soybeans, meanwhile, also suffered from not getting June rains, Levy said.

Some soybean crops were planted early under ideal conditions, particularly in the central part of the state. "But then when they were starting to go into the reproduction stage, it started getting dry, and that's when they really need the moisture," he said. "So that's where some of the yield loss is already seen."

Still, it's too early to assess what the overall impact will be, he said.

"Mother Nature has a big impact on us and until we get them harvested, we're at Mother Nature's mercy, just like everybody else," Levy said.