Drought dominates Ark. ag news in 2012
Drought dominated agricultural news in Arkansas in 2012, causing grief for the state's livestock industry, and prompting row crop farmers to dig more deeply into their wallets to keep their thirsty plants alive.
Drought's overall impact on Arkansas gained the highest number of points from a panel of Cooperative Extension Service agents, specialists and reporters and editors who cover agriculture in Arkansas. The specific impact on the state's cattle industry was No. 2, followed by record yields for soybean, corn and rice crops, and shipping disruptions on the Mississippi River. Two stories tied for fifth place: early planting coupled with early harvest, and high grain prices. Two stories tied for seventh: Hurricane Isaac and the growth in peanut acreage. There was a three-way tie for ninth place as well: true armyworms in spring, rise in corn acres/loss in cotton acres, and high fertilizer prices.
The drought afflicting the Midwest and Mid-South grabbed international media attention in the summer of 2012, but for the southern and western parts of the state, 2012 was the second year in which the rains stayed away. Lack of soil moisture caused house foundations to buckle, wells and stock ponds to dry up and prompted use restrictions by some water utilities.
Lack of rain in the spring killed seedlings on Christmas tree farms, wilted home gardens, and began a cycle that rendered pastures and other grasslands barren.
Rain finally began to return in the late summer and early fall. The Dec. 11 map from the U.S. Drought Monitor saw drought continuing its slow recession, with nearly 24 percent of the state being drought-free. That's in contrast to the Sept. 25 reading in which 99.89 percent of the state was in drought.
According to the National Weather Service, the drought is expected to linger in northwest Arkansas; improve slightly in an area north and west of a line from about Texarkana to Pocahontas; and show more improvement in the counties bordering Missouri's Bootheel through February.
2. Cattle industry suffers
Drought cost Arkansas' beef cattle industry $128 million, according to a study released in September by Michael Popp, professor of agricultural economics, Nathan Kemper, trade adjustment assistance program coordinator for the Southern Risk Management Education Center, and S. Aaron Smith, a Ph.D. student at the University of Arkansas.
The actual cost may be much higher. The study's authors cautioned that the $128 million figure "should be deemed a conservative estimate of the direct economic impact of the drought on cow-calf producers' income." When induced impacts are calculated, the numbers soar to $133 million in labor income losses and a $136 million loss in value added.
"In a normal year, cull cows represent 9 percent of the cattle sold in Arkansas sale barns. This year that number increased to 15 percent. That not only made a major impact in 2012 but the impact will be felt for years to come," said Tom Troxel, associate head-Animal Science, for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
3. Record yields
The weather dealt Arkansas row crop growers a winning hand. Warm weather in January and February allowed farmers to plant weeks early. Continued warmth through the growing season enabled growers to harvest early. The key for growers was Arkansas' generous aquifers.
"Mother Nature can provide many things, but during 2012 she decided to turn the heavens dry in contrast to spring of 2011" when record flooding was reported on the White and Mississippi rivers, said Brent Griffin, Prairie County Extension staff chair for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
"Ground water was a precious commodity during the summer, with surface water being depleted while irrigating drought-stressed crops," he said. "Growers cranked up wells in many areas for the first time in five years and many of the wells still produced.
"In hindsight, If you would have told me that in July and early August farmers on the Prairie would harvest a record corn, rice and soybean crop, I would ask what have you been drinking," Griffin said.
The irrigation was a pain in the wallet as farmers burned through thousands of gallons of diesel to keep the pumps running.
According to USDA estimates in November and December, Arkansas growers set new state average yield records for soybeans, rice and corn. Soybeans were estimated at 41 bushels per acre, beating the old record of 39 bushels set in 2004. The rice yield was put at about 163 bushels per acre, up from the old record of 160. Corn yields were expected to be 177 bushels per acre, well above last year's 142 bushels per acre. Cotton growers missed the 2004 record of 1,112 pounds of lint an acre. The 2012 yield was expected to be a strong1,084 pounds per acre.
4. River laid low
The Mississippi is the nation's largest river system, draining some1.25 million square miles, or 41 percent of the United States' landmass. However, widespread and prolonged drought this year meant there's been little to drain into its 2,350-mile length. In August, levels were so low that shipping was halted briefly. In late November, river levels sank so low again that shippers petitioned the president for a declaration of emergency. A large storm system added much needed water during the second weekend of November, forestalling another closure. However, drought probably isn't done with the Old Man River.
Bob Anderson, chief of public affairs for the Army Corps of Engineers' Mississippi Valley Division, said in December that: "We believe the river will be open longer with fewer problems, but the drought may continue till spring."
5. Early planting and high grain prices (tie)
Extension agronomists and agents for corn, soybeans and rice all credited the warm spring for allowing early planting. So early, that some Chicot County corn growers were putting seed in the ground in February. The dry weather kept a lid on many diseases and the heat did the same for row crop insect pests.
Early planting and an accelerated harvest had watermelon growers selling fruit in July and worried about having any left for the Hope Watermelon Festival in August. In Newport, strawberry grower Bill Landreth was picking his berries in April and was worried that customers who would normally expect the crop in May, would miss the boat.
Drought in the upper Midwest destroyed grain crops, meaning prices rose on what was left.
"The 2012 drought cut national average corn yields by 17 percent and soybean yields by 6.2 percent year-over-year. This drove prices for both commodities to historic nominal highs," said Scott Stiles, extension economist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
"Based on USDA projections, average producer prices received for the 2012 corn and soybean crops will be 19 and 16 percent higher, respectively, than last year."
7. Isaac and growth in peanut acreage (tie)
In late August, Hurricane Isaac kept Arkansas farmers up at night as the storm swept north from the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the harvest with high winds and heavy rain. The storm entered the state with winds still at tropical storm strength, but rapidly declined to a tropical depression.
One worried Prairie County farmer "finished rice harvest at 11 p.m. last night and was moving to the neighbor's field to help" at 8 the next morning, Griffin said on Aug. 29. High winds damaged some crops, but Isaac's immediate impact was not as bad as feared, outside of farmer fatigue. Isaac dropped up to 8 inches in southern Arkansas, but for those living in the state's drought parched areas, the storm "was a big flop," said Polk County Extension Staff Chair Carla Vaught.
Despite encompassing fewer than 1,000 acres in 2010, peanuts were undergoing a renaissance in Arkansas. The 2011 peanut crop grew to 4,000 acres and in 2012 ballooned to about 18,000 acres in six counties. Despite bountiful harvests in the major peanut states of Georgia, Alabama and Florida, two peanut companies built buying points in Arkansas in 2012.
9. True armyworms, cotton versus corn acres, high fertilizer prices (tie)
Drought proved to be a formidable enemy for the state's livestock producers. While lack of rain and heat withered pastures, when the rain did come and allowed growth, true armyworms pounced on the young greenery, reducing fields again to dust.
Cotton was once king in Arkansas. In 1949, 2.7 million of the state's acres were planted in cotton. By comparison, Arkansas farmers harvested just 580,000 acres of cotton in 2012.
In the 1950s, corn was grown on just 50,000 acres and primarily for feed. However, the need for more feed and demand for ethanol has lifted prices and interest. In 2012, farmers harvested 690,000 acres of corn.
The crossover of cotton and corn acres in Arkansas is something of a watershed, Stiles said, adding that 2012 "would be the first time since 1940 we've seen more corn planted than cotton in the state."
Fertilizer prices shot up in spring as USDA announced that U.S. farmers would be planting a record number of corn acres.
While there is a relationship between corn and urea prices, it's a complicated one. In April, Stiles said the driving factors in the higher fertilizer prices were:
The 4-million-acre increase in corn nationwide
Early planting and early maturing winter wheat
A bearish outlook for grain prices through the winter. "All grain prices peaked on Sept. 1, 2011, and declined through December," Stiles said. "Nitrogen prices followed right along with grain prices."