record rainfall Southeast 2014 crop problems

Record rainfall leaves lasting footprint on Southeast agriculture

I made a trip through the Carolina Low Country in route to a weekend wedding in Charleston and saw some of the lingering results of what is now being called ‘The 100 Year Rain’.

To put it mildly, some of the farmland is a mess.

It seems every farmer I talked to during the growing season this year had much the same story. They wanted to work, but could only watch it rain. Some tried to work land they knew was too wet and all too often left ruts and potholes in fields that will take years to restore.

Of the crops hard hit by the excessive rain, I’m guessing cotton will take the biggest blow. The combination of early rain that produced a shallow root system, combined with cool, rainy weather late that inhibited boll set and even boll opening in some cases, appears to have taken a heavy toll.

Clemson University and Calhoun County S.C., Extension Agent Charles Davis says, “The cotton crop in Calhoun County is a mixed bag. I can show you cotton fields that will pick 300 pounds per acre and drive down the road two miles and see fields that will pick 1,200 pounds per acre.” 

From a considerably more scientific assessment than I got rolling down U.S. Highway 278, Davis says in general, the soil type and planting date seem to be the controlling factors. 

Heavy rains this summer leached potash and nitrogen in the sandy soils of the western part of the county. The northern part, where there is more clay, didn’t seem to be as bad, though in the sand ridges along the transition zones in many fields, the leaching is evident. 

From north Florida to Virginia the heavy rains compromised root systems and many plants never recovered. Davis says he dug hundreds of plants during the growing season and almost always found poor root systems associated with poor plant growth. 

“The interesting aspect in many fields this year was the occurrence of scattered plants with normal growth. When I looked at the root systems of these plants they always appeared to be more normal, with a decent tap root that could access the leached nutrients from deeper in the soil profile. 

“It is my suspicion that early nematode damage, along with waterlogged soils, kept the plants in a state of shock for an extended period of time. By the time the soils dried out enough for root growth to continue, the damage was done.”

In the final analysis, Davis says cotton yields in Calhoun County may be down as much as 40 percent compared to last year.

The story doesn’t vary much from crop to crop or location to location in the Upper Southeast. The two most prevalent themes are: All our crops are late and this will be an average year at best.

What’s left from Florida to Virginia are fields that are pockmarked from a combination of record rains and growers’ desire to do ‘something’ other than wait. For sure it will be a while before all the well-intentioned physical damage is repaired.

Recovering from the lingering effects may be a bit more troubling. In many cases, soils were depleted of nutrients, but a bigger question is how much. There has never been this kind of rain in the lifetime of most farmers in the hard hit areas, so it’s hard to know how severe the problem.

“For sure it will be a real good year to do soil sampling,” Davis says. Not only to do soil sampling, but to look at grid, zone and other more high tech systems of soil sampling. It will take some extra effort to overcome something that, hopefully, will only happen once in a lifetime.

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