Arkansas rice: 'slow but sure' harvest

Inevitably, Arkansas' late-planted rice crop has led to a late harvest. But the effects of hurricanes and a cool September have also lengthened the harvest season.

As of Oct. 6, the state was 65 percent harvested. Three days later, Chuck Wilson, Arkansas Extension rice specialist, was reached in the field and estimated, “We’re probably around 70 percent done. That’s still 20 to 25 percent behind where we usually are. At this time of year, we should be at least 85 percent completed.”

Despite being spared extreme heat, the last few weeks “have not been easy. That’s mainly because the cool weather has slowed the crop’s maturation.

“When we have normal, hot September weather, the rice crop will dry out and mature quickly. It hasn’t been that way this year and things have dragged on.”

As rice market prices have recently “bounced around,” thus far yields have been “so-so, average, at best. I think our yield is off some. Most growers say they’re 10 to 15 percent off last year’s yield.

The aftereffects of hurricanes have also played a role in the tardy harvest. “Cutting has been slow and sure. When hurricanes put the crop on the ground, that’s what it takes.”

Many growers are harvesting standing rice first and waiting to cut “the laid-down crop until last. They know that portion will be slow and frustrating. They’re getting the best rice out first.”

Wilson says the lateness isn’t statewide. “Some producers — some of my neighbors, actually — are done with harvest. And they’ve been done for 10 days, or so.

“But I also know producers who didn’t even begin cutting until 10 days ago. It’s really variable and a lot of the rice still in the field is in northern Arkansas.”

What about widespread reports of shattering? “Hurricane Ike caused a lot of shattering — a lot more than people are used to with hybrids. I’ve heard reports of as few as 5 bushels up to 100 bushels left on the ground. That triple digit loss is worst-case, but the point is a lot of grain has been lost.

“There’s not much you can do about shattering. The winds blew it off the plant, it’s on the ground and it isn’t accessible.”

Using a yield monitor, some growers have observed that where winds were unobstructed, “they lost substantial yield. Where the winds were blocked by tree-lines, or whatever, yields were more reasonable.”

The cooler weather has had an upside. “The milling is outstanding, from what I hear.”

Keith Glover, president of Producers Rice Mill in Stuttgart, Ark., confirms milling quality “looks really good. We’re getting a whole-kernel yield of a bit over 59 pounds per hundredweight, so far.”

Considering the problems the crop has had through the season, does that surprise Glover? “It does because we’re seeing field yields that are off, on average, probably 20 bushels per acre. You sort of expect the field yields and milling quality to run in tandem. Not this year, though. The milling quality is actually quite a bit better than last year’s.”

Like Wilson, Glover points to the cool August and September as causative factors. “Kernels didn’t have quite the heat stress of recent years.”

Growers who use Producer Rice Mill facilities are “about 80 percent complete with harvest. “We’re disappointed that the field yields are off. A lot of that is due to the crop being planted a month late. Then Gustav blew down a bunch of east Arkansas rice. Ike followed with high winds and caused a lot of hybrid fields to shatter.

“Those three things have been the largest contributing factors to the poorer yields we’re seeing.”

Glover has spoken with “quite a few farmers” who say they lost 30 to 60 bushels per acre to shattering. One Stuttgart farmer said the hybrid fields he cut before Ike’s winds were 220 to 226 bushels. “After Ike, the same hybrid cut 168 bushels. He said he’d lost a good 50 bushels to shattering.”

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