UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY tobacco specialist Bob Pearce speaks at the Kentucky Burley Tobacco Tour held annually in August

UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY tobacco specialist Bob Pearce speaks at the Kentucky Burley Tobacco Tour held annually in August.

Burley tobacco’s resilience proven in extreme weather

Burley tobacco growers can't predict or control the weather for the coming season, but there are some actions they can take to minimize the negative impacts of extreme weather.

During the last two growing seasons burley tobacco growers have experienced a wide range of extreme weather conditions that have had a negative impact on the crop. 

During 2012, an early season drought and record-breaking heat wave nearly wiped out the crop for growers who did not have irrigation. For those with irrigation, the near constant pumping and moving of equipment added significantly to the cost of production.  By mid-July of the 2012 season, prospects for the burley crop looked very bleak. 

Timely rains in late July and August turned the crop around for the majority of burley growers in Kentucky.  A few growers even commented that it turned out to be one of the best crops for them in many years.  Such remarkable tolerance to dry conditions is not surprising given that tobacco and its wild relatives are native to semi-arid regions of Central America. 

The early part of the 2013 growing season was characterized by above-normal rainfall and relatively cool temperatures.  Constant rainfall in May and early June resulted in delayed planting for much of the crop.  Problems with soil compaction and poor root growth due to wet soil conditions were common.  Within an extreme season, even more extreme events were experienced. 

Over the July 4 holiday, a slow moving system hovered over much of the burley growing area putting down an average of 2 to over 6 inches of rain in a 72 hour period.  Some growers reported measuring locally as much as 8 to 10 inches of rain in that time period.  Even typically well-drained soils were unable to drain the water away from sensitive tobacco roots quickly enough to prevent serious root damage. 

When the sun began to shine on July 7, burley crops began to wilt and scald due to the root damage.  Initial damage reports suggested that as much 40 percent to 50 percent of the crop was severely damaged.  Once again the resilience of tobacco was demonstrated with many crops making a better-than-expected recovery.  Final estimates suggest that only 5 percent to 10 percent of the crop was a total loss as a direct result of this event, however most of the affected crops did not recover their full yield potential. 

Severe leaf spotting was another common problem observed on burley during the 2013 season, and was especially noticeable in the weeks following the heavy rainfall of July 4 – 7.  Much of the spotting was due to temporary nutrient deficiencies resulting from the loss of fine feeder roots during the time soils were saturated.  Other sources of leaf spotting that were identified included target spot, weather flecking, manganese toxicity and leaf damage from raindrop impact.  With the exception of target spot these problems were mostly temporary, and the plants generally recovered in 2 to 4 weeks. 

Kentucky growers disappointed with tobacco's 2013 weight

Despite the apparent recovery of many burley fields, most burley growers were disappointed with the weight of the cured leaf in 2013.  This is typical of a wet weather burley crop.  The yield potential of a burley crop depends much more on what is below ground than what we see above ground.  Burley tobacco will not put down a good root system in consistently wet soils and this will always result in lower cured leaf yields.   In a dry year like 2012, the top growth may not look as good but the crop is putting down a strong root system that will support a good yield.

While burley growers can neither predict nor control the weather for the coming season, there are some actions they can take to minimize the negative impacts of extreme weather.

  • Choose fields with deep, well-drained soils for tobacco production.
  • Practice a good system of crop rotation that ideally includes sod crops to promote strong soil structure and improve soil organic matter content.
  • Avoid tilling wet soils to limit compaction. 
  • Choose a variety with an appropriate level of disease resistance for the field.
  • Produce or purchase good quality tobacco transplants that are free of disease.
  • Make a plan for scouting and treatment for disease and insect pests at the beginning of the season.
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