Like many Texas crops along the Gulf Coast this growing season, persistent rains preceded major problems and concerns, said Lee Tarpley, Ph.D., AgriLife Research crop physiologist, Beaumont. The amount of rain is an issue, but the timing has also contributed to problems from reduced management effectiveness, lower solar radiation for plant development and muddy fields delaying harvest.
The combination of rain-related issues has lowered expectations about both the main and ratoon crop of rice this season, Tarpley said.
Tarpley said 20% of the days since March 1 have delivered at least 0.2 of an inch of rainfall, while another 20% delivered “measurable” amounts.
Fields are typically harvested by mid-August, and many producers with early planted fields prefer to have their crop in and begin managing for the ratoon crop by early August, he said.
As of July 30, only 7% of Texas’ rice crop was harvested, Tarpley said, which is close to the five-year average – 12% harvested by that date – but there are concerns that field conditions could further delay harvest.
“We had a very good beginning of the season,” he said. “Fields were planted early, and we were looking at an early July harvest in parts of the state, and a good ratoon crop. But we are behind at this point and several factors are working against rice producers this season.”
Overall, Texas rice acres are down slightly, 174,000 planted acres, compared to 183,000 in 2020, Tarpley said. The 2021 planted rice acreage is closer to the five-year average of 178,000 planted acres.
Market prices for Texas rice are also just under $1 per pound higher, $13.83 per pound, compared to the five-year average, $12.84 per pound, Tarpley said.
Despite better market conditions for rice, above-average moisture and subsequent field conditions since late spring have dampened outlooks.
Tarpley said harvest delays related to rain have pushed grain maturity beyond the ideal harvest stage with some concern about grain sprout, which can lead to quality issues and docked prices for farmers.
Disease, weed and pest pressures have also been higher than most years, Tarpley said. Field access has not been the main issue since most fields are treated via aerial crop applications. He suspects constant rains have shortened or reduced treatment effectiveness.
Tarpley said Texas rice producers have not been hit by armyworms at levels seen recently in Arkansas, the nation’s top rice-producing state. Still, that insect pressure has contributed to anxiety surrounding yields.
“Our AgriLife Research plant pathologist Dr. Xin-Gen Zhou said the plant disease has been the worst he’s seen in 10 years,” he said. “We’re seeing sheath blight, and there are concerns about kernel smut to go along with pest and weed control issues. We don’t know exactly what the issues are there, but it could be rain delays, rain impacting efficacy or producers putting off applications for a better day that doesn’t come.”
Cloudy days and too little sunshine are also expected to contribute to lower yields this season, Tarpley said. Solar radiation levels have been 8%-9% below normal, which impacted plant photosynthesis and productivity.
Tarpley said difficulties and delays related to the main crop are likely to spill into yields produced by the ratoon crop. Rice fields are typically cut to 8-to-10-inch stubble height during the main harvest, and new growth from the stubbles’ lower nodes typically produces decent secondary yields.
But delayed harvest can lead to higher cuts, which means the ratoon crop is produced from upper branches, Tarpley said. The upper branches can bring grains to maturity quicker, but yields are much lower.
Some producers are choosing to enter soggy fields to harvest, which Tarpley said is not ideal for the main harvest or the ratoon crop. Ruts reduce ratoon acreage, can lead to uneven water distribution in fields and cause nonuniform cuts as combines harvest on uneven ground.
Despite lowered yield expectations, Tarpley said the cooler weather and moisture have allowed producers to maintain flooded fields, which likely helped uniform plant progress. It’s difficult for irrigation to keep up with evaporation during drier, hotter summer conditions.
There are also some new rice varieties available from another seed company, which is likely to lead to competition and possibly better seed prices for growers in the future, he said. Up to 80% of Texas’ rice crop was grown from seed supplied by one company at one point.
“Better prices are another bright spot, but overall, conditions have not been ideal for Texas rice growers,” Tarpley said. “It’s been a difficult year, but hopefully the weather will cooperate enough over the next few weeks so that producers can get their crops in before any major quality issues and take advantage of that market.”