Georgia’s peanut crop for 2011 can best be described as a mixed bag, with yields ranging from record-high levels all the way down to zero, says John Beasley, University of Georgia Extension peanut agronomist.

This year’s Georgia Peanut Tour focused on the southwest corner of the state, not indicative of fields throughout the state’s peanut belt, says Beasley.

“We’re looking at an area that is heavily irrigated,” he says. “Probably 90-plus percent of this crop is irrigated. In most years in Georgia, about 50 percent of our peanut acreage can be irrigated. This year, however, we feel it is less than that because more cotton acreage was put under irrigation.”

At planting time this year, cotton prices were much more attractive than peanuts, so more growers put their irrigated land into cotton, says Beasley

“Things began changing as we got into the planting season. People were trying to plant early, and in June, conditions became excessively dry as growers continued planting. Then, farmers were trying to plant much later than they normally would.”

Some areas of Georgia have been drier than others in 2011, says Beasley. “In the past three weeks, I’ve walked fields that will have zero yield potential. Some growers have planted seed and applied fungicides, herbicides and insecticides, but they will get no yield from their crop,” he said during the last week of September.

“We’ve also walked some fields where farmers had crop insurance, and the yield potential was 100 to 300 pounds per acre. We’re looking at yield potential versus the cost of digging those peanuts out of the ground so we can advise our growers.”

Yield estimates from Sept. 12 NASS report showed Georgia yield potential at 3,400 pounds per acre. “That sounds pretty good since we set a record in 2009 of 3,560 pounds per acre and tied that record last year. But they’re not factoring in the zeros or the abandoned crop. The average yield is a little deceptive because it is based on the crop that is harvested and weighed.

I can’t say if that number is too low, too high or right on target.”

Some record yields

Beasley adds, however, that some peanut producers are eyeing record yields.

Mitchell May, Decatur County Extension coordinator in southwest Georgia’s Decatur County, says his growers planted about 25,000 acres this year.

“Our peanuts are grown in a rotation with cotton and corn. I think yields will be very good this year, with approximately 70 percent of our crop irrigated.

“Based on what I’ve seen, some of our yields have been as high as 7,000 pounds per acre on irrigated and 4,500 pounds per acre on dryland. We have a good water resource in the Floridan aquifer, and if not for that, we’d be in bad shape,” says May.

“This year, we’ll have zero to record yields on peanuts, and the final average will depend on everything in the middle,” says Beasley.

In addition to longer periods of dry weather since 1990, Georgia producers also have seen white mold, which loves hot weather, he says. It takes only a small amount of moisture to trigger the disease, he says.

“We’ve also had a pretty severe outbreak of lesser cornstalk borer. It feeds on developing pegs and pods, and is more severe in hot, dry conditions. In the last few weeks, we’ve had severe problems with spider mites. This insect pest can destroy entire fields in just a short period of time. We’ve also seen fall armyworms and beet armyworms.”

In addition to dealing with a mix of insects and diseases, the herbicides growers usually use are less effective when it’s hot and dry, he says, and some growers have spent extra money controlling weeds.

The biggest thing now, says Beasley, is making timely harvesting decisions.

“Last year, we harvested right at 1 million tons. This year, we could be down to 700,000 tons. The latest numbers are showing that about 8 percent is harvested compared to 12 percent last year and 6 percent for the five-year average.

“As far as the condition of the crop, the latest report is showing 20-plus percent of Georgia’s peanut acreage in the very poor to poor range. On the other side of that range, about 40 percent is rated good to excellent.”

Even with irrigation, some growers are running 10 days to two weeks behind schedule, says Beasley.

Looking at supply problems

On the marketing side, Stanley Fletcher, University of Georgia agricultural economist and research coordinator of the National Center for Peanut Competitiveness, said during the tour that the increased peanut use seen in recent years could be interrupted by supply problems in the coming months.

“In the last three or four years, we’ve been really moving up in peanut use,” says Fletcher. “Peanuts are a bellwether of the economy because peanut butter use goes up during difficult financial times — it’s a cheap source of protein. Since 2009, we’ve seen dramatic increases in peanut use which matches up with the economy.”

Maintaining this increased use will be a challenge, he says. “I’ve heard people say that by the time the 2012 crop year comes around, we might not have peanuts out there because of quality issues last year and possibly issues with aflatoxin this year.

“I’ll put most of the blame for this potential shortage on the manufacturers and a lot of the brokers. They did not look at the research, like that from the National Center for Peanut Competitiveness.

“They were still thinking of the quota days, that there would always be acreage out there. They did not have the same mentality of the corn, soybean and wheat guys, that when the prices bid up, they have to bid up too if they want to keep the acres,” says Fletcher.

The manufacturers put the shellers in a bind this past year, he says, because none of the manufacturers were willing to commit to $600 to $700 contracts. “They didn’t think it would happen, but we had a big acreage drop nationally. In Georgia, you have to go back to 1982 to see acreage so low. They didn’t think they’d have to bid for those acres to get them planted. If they had, we wouldn’t be seeing the acreage drop like this.”

Some of the shellers, he says, tried to do something about the looming acreage drop. “But they could only go so far without the commitment of forward contracting, and that gets to become a cash-flow issue. I put most of this squarely in the laps of those who did not listen to the research and did not understand the data,” says Fletcher.

Data from the National Center for Peanut Competitiveness comes from representative farms — 22 across the country from Virginia to Mexico. “And they have been pretty accurate of what is going on out there on the farm,” he says.

It’s has been more difficult to predict yields in the last few years, says Fletcher, because of improved varieties.

“Some are saying these new varieties, on average, might give you a 500-pound boost.

Our models right now are showing yields of about 3,100 or 3,140 pounds per acre, and this doesn’t include the factor of added yield from the newer varieties,” he says.

phollis@farmpress.com