Arkansas' rice plantings forecast to fall 3% year-over-year to 1.161 million acres, but state will remain largest producer in U.S., USDA says; cotton area to fall to 590,000 acres, down from 680,000 last year

Andrew Rogers

Andrew Rogers

Apr 4, 2012 – Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas , April 4, 2012 () – Many Arkansas farmers are done with watching as weeks of perfect planting weather have passed and are ready to put seed in the ground, even though the state hasn't moved past the danger of a late freeze.

Berry and fruit crops were wiped out in 2007 by a late April freeze and many row crop farmers had to replant. That still-fresh memory kept a lot of growers from their fields during the mildest March on record.

"I think a lot of people remember 2007 when we got an early start and it all came to a crashing halt," said Jason Kelley, extension wheat and feed grains agronomist for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.

Some rice and corn have already been planted and cotton growers are about to start turning dirt.

Kelley said long-range forecasts don't indicate a surprise freeze could be on the way.

Farmers have more to do than simply plant seeds, however.

"There's a lot of competition for growers' attention," said Scott Stiles, an economist with division. "They're preoccupied with planting. But with the warm temperatures, the weeds are coming up as fast as the crops. Growers can't get behind on weed control."

Also, Stiles said corn and soybean prices are high and growers should take the time to lock in those prices for at least part of their crops.

The winter wheat crop, which would be hurt the most by a late freeze, has either headed or is at or near the stage at which the seed grains begin to fill. That's an attractive stage for armyworms, which have been flourishing in the warm weather, Kelley said.

Kelley says the pests can be controlled by defoliating wheat in its late stages or by taking other measures.

Armyworms have been found in Arkansas, Desha, Ashley, Chicot, Lincoln and Prairie counties.

Wheat growers are already spraying fungicide for stripe rust, which has spread to 20 Arkansas counties. Stinkbugs have emerged, but not to the point where growers have to spray for them.

The wheat harvest could begin as soon as six weeks from now, a good two weeks early, Kelley said. The warm March temperatures have spurred the crop along.

Stiles noted that with a growing number of herbicide-resistant weeds, weed control isn't as easy as it was a few years ago. Herbicide-resistant pigweed is a problem, and some wheat growers have been beset by herbicide-resistant ryegrass.

Cotton expert for the division Tom Barber said the decrease in cotton acreage is tied to commodity prices and the amount that cotton farmers have to invest at the front end of the growing season. If weather damages the crop early on, a greater proportion of cotton costs would be lost, a worry not shared by cotton and soybean growers.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's prospective planting report issued Friday, soybeans will, as usual, command the most acreage in Arkansas, with 3.30 million acres planted, about the same as last year.

Rice planting is projected to be down to 1.161 million acres, about 3 percent less than last year's 1.196 million acres. Though limited in acreage, the crop customarily grosses more than any other in the state. Arkansas is the nation's leading rice producer. California is second and produces about half as much as Arkansas.

Cotton is projected to fall significantly, with 590,000 acres to be planted this year, down from 680,000 acres last year.

Winter wheat plantings are projected to be down to 540,000 acres this year, compared with 620,000 in 2011. Sorghum acreage is up 60 percent to 160,000 acres, compared with 100,000 last season.

Sweet potato production is to take up 19,000 acres, up from 18,500 last year, enough to make the state the third-largest sweet potato producer in the nation. Peanuts have gained attention from Arkansas farmers this year, though not enough to merit a mention for the state in the USDA projection.

Peanut processors have been recruiting Arkansas farmers to make up acreage lost to dry conditions in Texas and Oklahoma.

Several thousand acres of peanuts are expected to be planted.

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