Water restrictions in some parts of Texas and unseasonably cool temperatures that settled in earlier this year have had the state’s rice crop growing in a bit of uncertainty.

And the end results could take a bite out of more than a side dish for stir fry, according to Texas AgriLife Research rice scientist Dr. Ted Wilson of Beaumont. A drop in rice yields will also affect the state’s economy.

Because of the 2011 drought in Texas – which continues in a large portion of the western region – water use has been restricted for crop irrigation in three large rice-producing counties: Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado, he noted.

“The rice industry brings in $500 million to $600 million in value-added contributions to the economy for the state of Texas,” Wilson said. “We are in the second year for the rice industry of a curtailment of access (to surface water) in those three counties, and that impact has been a 30 percent reduction in rice acres in Texas, so that’s about $180 million dollars lost from the state economy.”

For long-time farmer Mike Burnside, the water restriction for the second year meant he had to change crops to grow soybeans for the first time in 28 years.

“I have no rice,” said the Bay City area farmer. “After 100 years of growing rice in this area, for the second year in a row we can’t because there is no water. We need the drought to break.”

“Those three counties have represented 72 percent of the rice grown in Texas,” Wilson said. “The canal system there, which was originally constructed by the rice industry, has transferred to municipalities over time, so that puts constraints on what rice growers can use. And that has economic implications for Texas.”

Coupled with the water limitations, he added, are “very unusual” weather conditions that started off the rice planting/growing season.

“It remained cool for a long, long time as the planting season was starting, so the plants have grown more slowly,” Wilson said. “We haven’t had many problems with seedling disease because it’s been dry along with the cold, but it still begs the question what the long cold weather will have done to the yield potential. And there is some indication that it reduced the tillering, which are baby plants produced by each of the plants that come from an individual seed, and that is what allows rice basically to fill in the space.”

Almost 95 percent of the state’s 131,094 acres planted had emerged by the end of May, according to AgriLife Research figures. That is somewhat better than last year when only about 80 percent of the 132,822 acres planted had emerged.

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However, by this time in 2012, about 19 percent of the crop was developing panicles – where the grains of rice develop. This year, only about 10 percent of the state’s crop is at that stage.

The rice crop is generally harvested in August and September.

Another factor to consider is what the delay in harvest of the first-crop rice will mean to the second-growth crop, called ratoon rice, he said. Depending upon the variety grown, the first harvest typically comes about mid-July.

“The ratoon crop is usually a huge part of the economic enterprise for rice growers in Texas,” Wilson said. “A really good grower can easily make up a 10-day delay. The way they do that is by how they time their last fertilizer application. It’s actually the first fertilizer application for the ratoon crop, but they apply it just prior to harvest of the main crop.”

This practice promotes very rapid growth of the ratoon crop, he said.

“But the real question is what kind of delay we can expect from the unusually cool weather we experienced early on,” Wilson said. “And I just can’t answer that question at this time.”

“The important question for a healthy rice industry is to understand what makes for a good year and one that is not so good,” he said. “We don’t know the impact on the yield from the cold, but it may have affected the tiller production,” which, in turn, could put a dent in yield.

 

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