Top adjectives used to describe the U.S. rice crop this season include terrible, disappointing and average. For many Mid-South and Southwest producers, the impact of hot, dry weather was much more severe than many expected. California producers struggled through late planting and rising production costs.
According to USDA, average U.S. rice yield is projected at 6,687 pounds per acre, down from 7,085 pounds in 2009. Texas yields are off 670 pounds from last year, while California yields are projected 700 pounds lower. Louisiana yields are up 200 pounds from 2009.
Rice harvest is complete in Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana and Missouri. Harvest in California, at 55 percent complete, is behind the 5-year average of 87 percent.
Here’s more from the fields:
It was a “rough” year for Arkansas’ rice crop, says Chuck Wilson, Arkansas Extension rice specialist.
“We had a lot of yield loss and probably had more failures – and, to me, anything under 100 bushels is a failure – than I’ve seen in a single year. A lot of guys were hit hard.”
The latest USDA estimates say the state’s average yield will “be around 142 bushels per acre. That’s better than the August estimate, which I thought was too high. I think 142 bushels is pretty close.”
Much of the rice crop was planted early, but the heat and drought “played havoc. It was really hard to keep fields flooded. There were a lot of water shortage issues.”
Bacterial panicle blight was also widespread and “we had weed control issues because of the drought and wind. It was hard to get things done on time.
“Probably one million acres were planted over two weeks in April. That meant everyone was ready to spray and fertilize at the same time.”
Wilson suspected the crop was in trouble in mid-June. “I was driving around and saw areas of fields, hot spots, where rice was beginning to become severely drought-stressed. It was widespread – you could see problem spots in almost every field. Growers were unable to get water to those parts of fields.”
Later in the season, the crop began to look better. But Wilson “never had a good feeling about it. I thought the crop looked a whole lot better than it really was. My experience says that a combination of heat and drought doesn’t typically lend themselves to high yields.”
Wilson says heat alone doesn’t explain the yield losses. Drought and water management also had a major impact.
“The heat and drought really put a strain on our irrigation capacity. This year, we planted more rice acres, 1.8 million, than we’ve ever planted. In many cases, a grower was trying to irrigate 80 acres of rice with a well that is designed to irrigate 60.
“Growers did all they could. But we overextended our capacity in a drought year. And you never know when drought will show up. If we’d caught some timely rains to help out the irrigation systems, I think we’d have had a different ending. That’s why I think the drought caused as much trouble as the heat.”
On the back end of the season, harvest weather was excellent.
“There were maybe a couple of days of rain that kept us out of the field and there wasn’t a lot of dew. So, not only did we not have any rain, but on many days producers were able to start harvesting early in the day.”
Harvest was early “because of when the crop was planted and all the heat allowed the crop to develop quickly. We began cutting in early August and by early October we were almost done.”
Such an early, easy harvest also allowed some growers to try a second crop of rice.
“I don’t think it’ll be a long-term practice because things don’t usually line up in way that allows a ratoon crop. Still, my best friend cut some rice on Aug. 2. He harvested the ratoon crop (the week of Oct. 18) and cut about 75 bushels per acre.”
Second crop yields are “all over the board just like with the main crop.”
Heath Long, who farms 800 acres of rice, along with soybeans and wheat in south Arkansas County, Arkansas, had a great second crop on some of his rice acres this season. “We cut the first crop so early (August 2), I decided to put 100 pounds of fertilizer on one 47-acre field and made 89 bushels on the second crop.”
He also caught three inches of rain in the field, “so the fertilizer was all the money I had in it.”
Long said his rice was a couple of weeks ahead of normal this season. “I planted April 1, and it got ready quick. The first crop didn’t do as well as would have liked, and I don’t know why. It looked good, but it had some blanks. But I didn’t have a disaster.”
Long planted all his rice in the hybrid XL 723. “The hybrid helped on the second crop. The hybrids come back quickly.”
Rice producers in the northern Sacramento Valley, Calif. rice fields are finishing up a challenging growing season mired by cool and wet spring weather. Many of California’s 2,500 rice farmers struggled to get the crop back on schedule due to cool temperatures and wet fields. California is the nation’s second largest rice producer behind Arkansas.
Charley Mathews, owner of C and H Farms in Marysville in Yuba County began harvest the last week of September. Initial yield returns were 8,000 pounds per acre of medium-grain Calrose rice; an average yield in the valley. About 85 percent of all California rice is the Calrose japonica type.
Despite the late growing season, Mathews’ kicked off the harvest a little earlier than he would like, due to inherent rains which usually fall in October and November. The average October rainfall in the area is 3 to 4 inches.
“I will be happy with an average yield,” said Mathews. “The rice looks real good. It was the latest crop we ever planted. It was a very rushed approach; we call it shotgun planting.
“Shotgunning means you go as fast as you can and don’t try to perfect anything or clean things up. We had to get the water started and the seed planted between the rain storms.”
The rushed approach left perfecting land leveling for next year and cancelled extra field chiseling and disking. The plus side of this was reduced production costs.
“The fields had big clods and muddy spots since the soil didn’t get a chance to dry out completely,” Mathews said. “It was like spreading peanut butter.”
Mathews said rice prices early in the season were good, but below the highest price of about $1,000 per ton FOB milled in 2008.
This strange production year, says Mathews, illustrates the resiliency of high quality rice varieties currently available to growers.
“The varieties were developed over time to withstand weather challenges and provide good emergence and vigor,” Mathews said. “Even the yields don’t fluctuate much with difficult weather.”
Frank Rehermann, FJR Farms, in Nelson, California said the season started out with frustration. Generating a rice stand took Rehermann a month to achieve, versus a more typical 2-3 week period. But Rehermann is all smiles today. Early yields in fields planted with the M206 variety generated 9,000 pounds per acre, about 1,000 pounds less than his all-time record crop of about 10,000 pounds last year.
The largest challenge for the financial viability of California rice growers is controlling production costs.
“I try to be as cost effective as I can be to hold down the production costs on my operation,” Rehermann said. “Increasing production costs is the biggest single threat we have to remain in the rice business.”
Louisiana’s first rice crop was disappointing, says Johnny Saichuk, Louisiana AgCenter rice specialist.That’s “particularly true for growers in northeast Louisiana but virtually everyone I speak with says their yields are lower than last year.
“We didn’t do as well as USDA claims. They say our yields are around 6,500 pounds per acre. While we haven’t worked up our figures yet, I estimate we’re averaging at least 200 or 300 pounds less than that.”
Louisiana is just now beginning to harvest the second crop. “We may be 5 percent done,” says Saichuk. “Some of those yields are pretty good and others are mediocre. It’s hard to draw a conclusion on the second crop yet but I think it’ll be decent.”
Because of the high prices of cotton and corn, many expect “this year’s big jump in rice acres up in northeast Louisiana will go away in 2011.”
Saichuk cites extreme heat and its consequences as yield killers this season.
“It just got too hot. That hurt pollination and encouraged bacterial panicle blight, a disease most varieties are susceptible to.
“We also saw a flare-up of late season diseases – leaf scald, leaf smut – that are normally considered minor. Don Groth, an AgCenter plant pathologist, said he’d never seen so much leaf smut before. I attribute that outbreak with stressed plants. The ability of the plants to resist many of these organisms depends on good plant health. And the rice plants just weren’t healthy – it was too hot.”
For more on Louisiana rice disease, see http://deltafarmpress.com/rice/disease-hits-louisiana-rice 
As for 2011, Saichuk says there are several new Clearfield varieties that growers may want to consider.
“One is CL261 – the first time we’ll have a Clearfield medium-grain. It was in seed production last year and will be in commercial production in 2011.
“We’ve heard a lot of criticism of CL111 because of panicle blight. I hope growers don’t pass judgment just based on this year. It was so, so hot. In a normal year, I think it’s a good variety.”
Mississippi’s rice harvest conditions were “as good as they could possibly get,”says Nathan Buehring, Mississippi Extension rice specialist. “Of course, we were ready for good conditions after last year’s harvest. Last fall, it wouldn’t stop raining. This year, it hardly rained at all.”
Unfortunately, yields didn’t live up to expectations.
“We had a great looking crop but the yield didn’t keep pace. I think it just stayed too hot for too long. Milling quality was also harmed. The heat knocked our rice back. This year, we had a lot of blanks and low test weights.
“There was a week when the daytime highs were over 100 degrees and the nighttime temperatures were around 80 degrees. That can’t help but effect the crop. And it never really cooled down – 95 daytime temperatures with 75-degree days were common.”
For Buehring’s comments on the 2009 crop, see http://deltafarmpress.com/rice/2009-mississippi-rice 
Extreme temperatures really harmed rice planted in late April through mid-May.
“That rice probably made up only about 20 percent of the state’s crop. We had a dry spring and were able to get around 75 percent of the crop planted by the end of April. Some of the rice has field yields of less than 100 bushels. That wasn’t because the farmers neglected anything – it was just that hot.”
Buehring didn’t notice any varieties that were better able to handle the heat. “They were all hammered, across the board. We knew we had problems because there was a lot of straighthead and aborted pollination.”
The USDA has Mississippi’s yield average “pegged at about 145 bushels/6,500 pounds per acre. That’s going to be close to what we end up with, I think. I don’t think that average number will rise but it might go down.
“Some of our early-planted rice – late March through early April – cut really good yields. The heat wore down the late-planted rice a little bit more.”
Rice consultant Amy Beth Dowdy, with ABD Crop Consultants, LLC, in Dexter, Mo., says the overall dry bushel average yield in Dunklin and Pemiscot counties “is going to be somewhere 135 bushels and 140 bushels. We had some high yielding fields, but we also had enough low-yielding fields to offset that.”
Dowdy says in fields she scouted, the lowest yields occurred where the crop was starting to head out the week of July 25. “If it headed out before that or after that, it wasn’t nearly as bad. That one week was particularly bad. The heat just did a number on everybody.”
Dowdy said the lower yields occurred in both hybrids and varietal rice.
The cost of the crop was also higher, due to pumping costs.
“In one word, disappointing,” Wendell Minson, owner of Bootheel Crop Consultants, said of the Bootheel crop. “It promised so much, but it didn’t come through. We were set for a record harvest, but by the time the smoke clears, it’s going to be a below average yield for us.”
Minson said hybrid yields were off an average of 15 bushels, while conventional varieties were off 20 bushels to 25 bushels.
Like Dowdy, Minson blamed much of the reduced yield on the heat. “The milling is not going to be as good as we liked. Last year’s milling was terrific, and this year it’s on the other extreme.”
“Weed control was excellent, but we had to spray more for armyworms and stink bugs than usual.”
“Terrible,” says Texas AgriLife Research rice specialist Garry McCauley in summing up the 2010 rice crop.
“We’ve seen yields in some isolated pockets that were only 10 percent to 15 percent down,” McCauley says. “But we also see pockets where crop production is off 50 percent. Overall, yields are down 40 percent to 45 percent.”
He says farmers who are making 32, 33 or 34 barrels per acre had expected to make close to 60 barrels earlier in the season. A barrel is equal to 147.6 pounds. Heavy rainfall at heading played a role in the crop loss.
“No more than 10 percent of the crop will be at a high yield level,” McCauley says. “Disease, temperature, rainfall and panicle blight all took a toll on this crop. We had a no-win situation with the main crop; the ratoon crop doesn’t look much better.”
With about 15 percent to 20 percent of the second crop harvested, “the best yields I’ve heard about are 20 barrels per acre and some are making 10 to 15 barrels,” McCauley says. “We usually have some that top 35 with hybrid rice.”
High expectations for some varieties have been dashed. Hybrid rice has out-performed traditional varieties, McCauley says, but hybrid yields are off significantly as well. “Some performed a little better than others, and farmers asked what they could have done differently to get better results. There was nothing they could have done to make the situation better.
“A lot of farmers had high inputs with two applications of fungicide, weed control and other costs. They did everything right and still made 32 barrels.”
McCauley says Texas rice farmers still in business are stable and likely will survive this down year. “They had two good years in a row,” he says. “In 2008 they had an average crop but exceptional prices. Last year they had an exceptional crop and average prices.”
Acreage for 2011 may not vary much from 2010 because of the poor crop, McCauley says. “Any rice farmer in it just for fun has already gone.”
The one bright spot for the 2010 crop is milling quality. “Milling quality is exceptional,” McCauley says.