Parts of Southeast remain stuck in drought

The final report for July from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows a slight improvement in drought conditions for the lower Southeast, but not significant enough to improve crop and topsoil conditions in parts of Alabama and Georgia.

The northwestern edge of Alabama categorized as being in an “exceptional” drought for much of the year has shrunken slightly, but major precipitation deficits remained over the Southeast, with increasing topsoil shortages and severe crop impacts.

Since Jan. 1, a large swath from western Florida to Tennessee and the southwestern tip of North Carolina has been 15 to 20 inches below normal, with the drought epicenter in eastern to northeastern Alabama still a staggering 25 inches behind, or less than 50 percent of normal precipitation.

Huntsville and Cullman, Ala., were still at record lows for year-to-date precipitation. Poor to very poor topsoil percentages ranged from 48 percent across Georgia to 61 percent in North Carolina, 68 percent across South Carolina and 75 percent in Tennessee.

In Alabama, topsoil conditions in the last week of July were 69 percent poor to very poor, despite scattered rainfall in the north.

Local rains brought short-term relief to some crops and pastures, but many crops suffered severe damage.

In Alabama, 80 percent of the corn crop was still rated poor to very poor, soybeans 61 percent, and cotton 49 percent. In Georgia, 48 percent of the corn crop rated poor to very poor, pastures 43 percent, cotton 21 percent, peanuts 16 percent, and soybeans 13 percent.

In Tennessee, ponds were going dry with 61 percent of hay in poor to very poor condition and 47 percent for corn.

In Georgia, the 2007 growing season has been a memorable one for peanut producers. “I don’t believe anyone who is active in peanut production has seen a year like we’ve experienced this year, says John Beasley, University of Georgia Extension peanut specialist.

People who were working with the University of Georgia in the mid-1950s say the closest comparison is the drought of 1954, says Beasley. “What we’ve experienced thus far, particularly through the early spring, is nothing like we’ve ever seen. Our growers in the four Southeast states have never had a challenge like this — we’re still suffering from the remnants of the drought,” he says.

The drought actually began about one year ago, he adds. “We had really good production years back in 2003 and 2005. Last year, we had a drought during the first part of the growing season. It carried on into the latter part of the season, but then we started getting rainfall, and we made a somewhat decent peanut crop in 2006,” he says.

During the past fall and winter months, precipitation was well below normal in Georgia and other parts of the Southeast, says Beasley. “Then, when we got into February, March, April and May with no rain or minimal rainfall amounts, then it meant we had no subsoil moisture. It puts you in a very difficult situation, and that’s what we’ve found this year,” says the agronomist.

A large percentage of the lower Southeastern peanut crop was planted during the last week of May and the first two weeks of June, he says. “In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, whenever we got to July 4, we had a pretty decent handle on the status of our peanut crop. It’s sad to say, but when we got to July 4 this year, we had some fields that were just cracking. Either peanuts were planted early and they never made it up, or they were planted much later,” says Beasley.

Tropical Storm Barry passed through the region in early June, bringing rainfall to the eastern half of the Georgia peanut belt but missing the Alabama, west Georgia and west Florida regions, he says.

“We’ve had scattered showers since that time. But I’m still hearing of some growers who are talking about abandoning acres because there’s no hope for their fields. For those fields that are up and have received rain or that have been irrigated, the peanuts look pretty good. A lot will depend on the amount of rainfall we receive through August. We have to get well into September with good, uniform rainfall before we have a chance at making good peanut crop,” says Beasley.

Peanut pest problems this season in Georgia have been focused primarily on weed management, he says. “Whenever you have a dry spring, weed management can be difficult, even under irrigation. Herbicide-resistant weeds continue to be a problem, and insect injury and damage has already started, especially from lesser cornstalk borers” he said in late July.

Lesser cornstalk borers can be expected to be a problem in dry, sandy soils, says Beasley. “We’ve seen reports of cutworms and corn earworms, and we’ll always have disease problems. Right now, it’s mostly leafspot and white mold,” he says.

He advises growers to continue monitoring their fields for lesser cornstalk borers, cutworms and corn earworms. “Last year, cutworms threw us a curveball. We weren’t expecting them, but they were there in large numbers.”

Many Georgia producers have already irrigated their crops numerous times just to get the peanuts up and growing, says Beasley. “In 2004, we were talking about irrigation costs of about $5.25 per acre inch. That cost was about $8 in 2005 and $12 in 2006. Already, we’re seeing costs this year in excess of $15 to put an inch of water on one acre,” he says.

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