A combine and other implements stranded in standing water off highway 165 north in Ouachita Parish early season 2016 Photo by Tammi Arender

A combine and other implements stranded in standing water off highway 165, north in Ouachita Parish, early season, 2016. Photo by Tammi Arender.

Rains, flooding leave south Louisiana agriculture reeling

A check of Louisiana crop conditions in midst of floods. Southwest region crops hit especially hard.

With harvest bearing down, south Louisiana producers were looking to close out a difficult 2016 growing season in a positive manner. Then, August rains arrived and flooding soon followed leaving mandatory evacuation orders, road closings and crops underwater.

The perilous conditions continue. The forecast for the week of August 15 calls for a 60 percent to 80 percent chance of daily rain.

“I’m doing a crop assessment, right now,” says Dan Fromme, LSU grain and cotton specialist, from the road. “Most of the state’s corn, grain sorghum and cotton is outside the flooding, farther north. We came out pretty well with those three crops – they escaped the bulk of the rain. It could have been much worse. Unfortunately, I’m hearing rice and sugarcane have been affected much more.

“It’s unfortunate for folks from New Orleans over to around Lafayette. Things are okay here, though, knock on wood.”

Indeed, for southwest Louisiana agriculture, the flooding is especially devastating.

“About 75 percent of our rice is located in southwest Louisiana,” says Dustin Harrell, LSU AgCenter rice specialist. “A lot of the area got 18 to 24 – even more than 24 – inches of rain. That caused a lot of flooding, including rice fields. Water from many of the initial rains actually did begin to recede before backwater flooding moved in from bayous, streams and rivers.”

Note: Harrell has written an in-depth report on the flooding with photos. Read it.

Harrell and colleagues have been trying to determine how rice is reacting. “I’ve been talking to Extension agents and consultants in each of the affected parishes. Initial estimates -- at least for the bigger rice-producing parishes like Acadia, Jeff Davis and Vermillion -- are that around 20 percent of the first crop was still in the field prior to flooding.

“Water that goes over the headed rice, or rice that lodges and lays over in the water, can definitely cause economic damage. If it’s mature, it won’t take long for the grain in the heads to sprout. If it drains early enough, the rice can still be harvested even though the quality will suffer. There is a market for at least some of that type of rice – things like pet food. Rice that’s submerged for an extended period will rot, become rancid.

“From Evangeline and St. Landry parishes south we could be looking at around a 20 percent loss of rice.”

Soybeans

The state also has a considerable number of soybean acres flooded. “It’s hard to know how many fields are under because the floodwaters are continuing to move,” says Ronnie Levy, LSU AgCenter soybean specialist. “This is still early days for this event. We’re working on acreage numbers as we speak but there have been so many road closures it’s hard to make assessments.”

To give an idea about the rolling closures, “I’m in St. Joe (in the northeast), right now,” says Levy. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to drive home to Crowley (in south Louisiana) this afternoon because roads are being shut down between here and there. The water is still going up around Crowley -- the bayous and rivers haven’t crested yet.”

Growers harvested very few soybeans before the flooding – probably less than 5 percent, says Levy. “There are a lot of beans in the sugarcane area that were ready to harvest before the rains. Lots of beans are about 10 days later than normal because of the copious early spring rains the state got.

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“I’ve been getting calls from growers wanting to know how long their beans can stay underwater before they die. That’s a hard question to answer. If they’re under for the next week, or more, that crop is definitely in jeopardy.

“It’s such a shame, really, because we had an excellent crop. It’s hard to take. It probably wouldn’t have been the record but USDA had us pushing 50 bushels and that would have been second best ever.”

The northwest soybean crop “is a bit late but looks good. Farmers should have really nice yields. It hasn’t been affected as severely as the southern beans. In the central part of the state, the beans aren’t as uniformly good.”

Again, the real problem is in the southwest. “Not only were some of the beans planted late but then the flooding hit. Some of the fields will be complete losses, no doubt.”

Corn, milo, cotton

Louisiana producers have been harvesting corn for two or three weeks. “There are a lot of 170- to 180-bushel yields,” says Fromme. “There have been some outliers at 200-plus and 140 bushels on the other end. The corn out of central and southern Louisiana was very good.”

Farther north in the state, there was spring flooding and some of the corn was planted late. “The dryland acreage didn’t get much rain in June. The yields are more hit or miss, inconsistent, up there.   

“Our grain sorghum yields have been phenomenal throughout the state – lots of 115- to 130-bushel fields. We’re attributing lots of that to the fact we didn’t really have to do much watering in the central and southern regions right after planting. That meant strong root systems and a fast start.”

The cotton was “looking depressed” a few weeks back, says Fromme. “Then, some timely rains hit in late July and early August and that’s really perked things up.

“A lot of people, including myself, believe we’ll be north of 1,000 pounds of lint. Last year, we finished up at about 871 pounds of lint. That came after 2013 and 2014 spoiled us with record yields.”

Rice loss estimate  

As for rice in southern Louisiana are there any concerns about flooding bringing in salinity problems?

“At this time, we haven’t considered that,” says Harrell. “Most of the water that’s backing up is fresh water. Farther south, that could potentially be an issue in the future. Right now, we’re concentrating on the crop that’s in the field.

“I tried to put an economic value on the situation. Using FSA certified acres and other things the estimate -- with a $11 per cwt and a mean yield of about 7,100 pounds per acre -- is about a $14.3 million loss. That’s only for the grain’s value and doesn’t include bins and equipment that flooded, infrastructure damage and all the rest.”

Harrell warns the estimate will need to be updated. “The situation is still in flux. The true economic damage won’t be fully known for a while until the water backs off.

“The fact that a lot of rice had to be harvested on wet ground is also a problem. Typically, in the southwest portion of the state, if the first crop has a down year it can be made up with the ratoon crop. One of the things that helps with that is a dry harvest meaning no rutting, fertilizer applied to dry ground and the stubble can be easily manipulated. This year, a dry harvest obviously won’t happen.”

What about the prospects for a ratoon crop in 2016?

“The $14.3 million estimated loss does not include the ratoon crop,” says Harrell. “We’re still trying to get a feel for the ratoon rice. If the ratoon stubble is underwater, all the regrowth could be killed. That can lead to a lot of dark water with low oxygen.”

In some places where flooding isn’t as bad, “the green regrowth is out of the water and will probably be fine. But there are fields where the first crop was harvested, a ratoon crop was planned but it’s now completely submerged.”

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