flooding Southeast planting

FLOODED FIELDS LIKE this one in west Alabama were common throughout the Southeast in late April as a line of heavy thunderstorms moved through the region.

Heavy rains delaying crop planting in Southeast

A heavy storm system that moved through the Southeast during the final days of April further frustrated farmers in the region who already were delayed in their spring planting.

A slow-moving and massive storm system that moved through the Southeast during the final days of April further frustrated the planting efforts of many farmers who already were running behind for the season.

The system sucked up moisture from the Gulf of Mexico before dumping it back onto land in a series of thunderstorms. As much as 2 feet of rain fell during a 26-hour period in parts of Alabama and Florida, according to the National Weather Service.

“It’s terrible,” says Brandon Dillard, an Alabama Extension regional agent in southeast Alabama’s Wiregrass.  “Some farmers have managed to get their corn planting finished, but there is very little cotton or peanuts in the ground.

“As soon as it gets dry enough to get back into the field, along comes another rain. Instead of 2 or 3 inches of rain, we’re getting 3, 4 and even 5 inches every 4 or 5 days.”

Dillard says the heavy rainfall has already forced producers in some cases to reduce their projected acreage by 10 to 15 percent due to the inability to plant on rain-drenched soils. The wet weather has changed planting dynamics too. Some producers who had originally planned on cotton or peanuts have opted for soybeans instead.

“One producer even has returned his corn seed to his dealer and is opting for cotton instead,” Dillard says.

In the Black Belt region of west Alabama, farmers operate according to another old adage: “If the ground is wet in the Black Belt you are going to get stuck.”

In fact, unplanted cropland is so water-saturated in some places that the corn stubble from the previous crop has been washed out of fields, according to Extension Regional Agent Rudy Yates.

Lots of equipment has already been mired in wet soils too. A stretch of sunny days with warm breezes would go a long way toward improving the situation, he says, though adding that this doesn’t appear likely over the next few days.

Like Dillard, Yates expects that the planting delays will lead to more farmers opting to plant soybeans this year.

The situation appears to be especially severe in Alabama’s Gulf Coastal region, particularly in the southernmost reaches of Mobile and Baldwin counties, according to Regional Extension Agent Kim Wilkins.

Corn plantings are faring a little better in southwest Alabama, as farmers were able to get seed into the ground sooner than their counterparts in other regions of the state. Even so, the recent heavy rains, which reached as high as 15 inches within the last few days in some places, have put a virtual halt on plantings, according to Wilkins.

“I’m worried about the planted corn in some places washing away,” she says.

It’s not just the delayed planting that worries crop experts. At Auburn University, Dale Monks, an Extension crops physiologist and a professor in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences, says that that the excessive rainfall may also affect some of the crops already in the ground.

“The soil can become so saturated with water that the seed is deprived of oxygen and fails to germinate,” Monks says.

Emerging plants are not immune either, he says.

Within saturated soil, plants are unable to take up water and nutrients and its growth is hindered and stopped, according to Monks.

“Corn plants, for example, will begin to turn yellow — sometimes purplish because of the lack of nitrogen and phosphorous,” he says.

Soggy soils also prevent plants from establishing deep root systems, further undermining their ability to take in nutrients and water late in the season.

Making up for lost time

There is some good news. Technological advances in the last few years have enabled some farmers to work around these challenges, at least to a degree.

Charles Burmester, an Extension agronomist based in the Tennessee Valley, credits two advances — GPS-guided planters and treated seed — with enabling farmers to put seed into the ground within narrower planting windows.

“It’s just amazing how quickly they can get across the fields now,” Burmester says. “Guidance systems allow farmers to operate their machinery for longer durations and with the treated seed, we don’t have to bother with granules and sprays or with putting in furrows.”

Underscoring just how efficient these planting regimens have become, he related the experience of one farmer who managed to plant 600 acres of corn in a single day.

Minimal and no-tilling planting has offered advantages too by enabling farmers with heavier equipment to get into the fields sooner and without running the risk of being mired in soggy soil. Burmester says.

Weather experts say that it is difficult to account for the factors that have contributed to this unusually wet planting season.  However, Florida State Climatologist David Zierden, says there is a chance that producers could be dealing with similar wet conditions in the fall.

Conditions in the Pacific Ocean are projected to produce an El Nino phase in the Southeast during the fall and winter. 

If this projection plays out, Zierden says there is a chance that producers could contend with a set of conditions similar to the last El Nino phase in 2009, when unusually wet conditions in October played havoc with harvesting.

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