Losing two of the most popular rice varieties, Cheniere and CL131, just before planting season has muddied the already murky waters for U.S. rice farmers.

The varieties, which accounted for 50 percent or more of planted acreage in some states last year, were removed from the planting mix in mid-March by USDA's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) following identification of GMO material in small samplings of each variety.

In something of a limbo state until the GMO issue is settled, rice specialists from major production states attending the recent Rice Seminar in San Antonio nonetheless expect planting of those varieties to resume in 2008.

The seminar, sponsored by Valent and in its 22nd year, brings top university rice specialists together to discuss issues affecting growers.

They launched this year's session with a 2006 crop update and estimates of 2007 planting intentions.

Seed supply, production economics (price and cost), water availability, and competing crops are among the key factors that will influence rice planting decisions for 2007.

“We'll see an acreage increase,” said Chris Greer, University of California Cooperative Extension Northern California farm advisor. He expects acreage to jump from 526,000 in 2006 to 550,000 this year. “With a good spring and no rain through April, we'll make that number.”

Chuck Wilson, University of Arkansas, said farmers in his state will plant fewer acres in 2007. “I'm not certain how much we'll drop. Two weeks ago (late February), I expected a 6 percent to 7 percent reduction; now I think it will be at least 10 percent. Seed supply, however, is not really an issue.”

Arkansas farmers planted 1.4 million acres in 2006.

“I'm not certain about Louisiana acreage for 2007 since we can't plant CL131,” said Steve Linscomb, with the LSU AgCenter. “A week ago (early March), 400,000 acres seemed likely, and we may still get that. Production economics are a little better.”

He said acreage in Southeast Louisiana will increase over 2006 as fields not planted last year because of salt water flooding from Hurricane Rita return to production. Pressure from corn and soybeans could cut acreage in the area, he said.

“But producers are much more optimistic than they were a year ago. Price is still not where they would like it, and they see other problems, so we have some uncertainty as we approach planting time.”

Linscomb said Cheniere and CL131 totaled 50 percent of planted acreage last year (25 percent for each), and Cocodrie accounted for another 25 percent of 2006 acreage.

“We'll plant more hybrid rice this year — we had 18,000 acres or more in 2006. Hybrids look good consistently in yield tests. Producer experience hasn't been as consistent and that could be stand-related. Ratoon crops in good years can see a 10 barrel per acre advantage.”

He says farmers likely will plant more Jupiter in 2007. “It has good yield and a good disease package, but smaller grain.”

Mississippi acreage remains a question mark, said Nathan Buehring, Mississippi State University. “Last year, CL131 and Cheniere accounted for 50 percent of our acreage. Growers may replace some Cheniere on silt loam soils with high dollar corn and Cocodrie rice.”

Soybeans could replace some CL131 acreage and farmers who would plant 131 also are looking at Cocodrie, which could account for as much as 80 percent of 2007 plantings, Buehring said.

He said acreage could be less than 150,000. Last year's 189,000 planted acres was the lowest in 20 years and he says 150,000 will mark the lowest rice acreage in “the last 30 years. We have a lot of uncertainty, especially with $8 soybeans in the mix.”

“I don't think we'll lose many acres,” said Missouri Extension Agronomist Bruce Beck. “We may be down 5 percent to 10 percent (from 214,000 acres in 2006)l some of that will go to corn or soybeans.”

The GMO issue also could affect acreage since CL131 acreage has increased. Cheniere was also up, with both Wells and Cocodrie declining.

Beck says some observers anticipate a long-term trend to boost Missouri rice acreage to 400,000, but “I don't think so. We could get to 300,000 by 2014.”

He said yield trends are up, with 2006 being a bit off.

“We're not certain of acreage for 2007,” said Texas Extension Specialist Garry McCauley. Water may be a deciding factor.

“Three of our largest rice-producing counties face water issues.” All the counties are along the Colorado River, account for 35 percent to 40 percent of the state's rice acreage, and face water rationing for 2007. “Water for rice production will be reduced.

“Water in the aquifer is declining; rainfall is way below normal; lake levels are low.”

He said a lot of uncertainty with seed supply and water availability will affect grower planting decisions for 2007. Acreage was down to 150,000 for 2006, “the lowest in memory,” McCauley said.

He says a larger portion of the 2007 crop could be organic rice. “Good contracts have been available in our Northwest rice belt.”

High nutrient levels in some of those soils improve production potential for organic rice, he said, and the requirement that no chemical agriculture could be practiced for three consecutive years on organic farms poses no significant problem for Texas rice growers. “We have enough rice land out of production so that's not an issue.”

McCauley says production last year featured a record main crop and a second crop that “was a disaster — 1,200 to 1,500 pounds per acre below average.” Total state production averaged 7,100 pounds per acre.

“We had a cool, wet spring that delayed planting. But since we have 50 percent to 60 percent of our acreage in reduced tillage systems, most farmers got in the fields quickly after fields dried out.”

A cold snap in mid-March also set the crop back. “We had some nights below freezing, with a large part of the rice crop in the ground. We had more replanting than I've seen in 25 years. One field had been planted for 18 days and still no crop up. After a point, seed treatments ran out, so we had a lot of stand problems and some trouble with weed control.”

A “long blackberry winter” caused about a 10-day delay for the 2006 Missouri rice crop, Beck said. “For about 10 days in May, the crop didn't grow. But we had minimum disease pressure because it was dry; in fact, we've had less disease pressure the past few years.”

He says the crop had ample moisture to emerge, but was followed by a dry spring and summer.

Rain came in torrents when harvest was about half through, Beck said. “We heard reports of 22 inches of rain over a weekend in September. Some areas had a lot less.”

Buehring said the 2006 Mississippi yield set a state record — 7,000 pounds per acre. “We had good weed control and above average temperatures for tillering. We had 80 to 90-degree temperatures in April. followed by a cool period in late April and early May. Nighttime temperatures averaged about a degree cooler than in 2005. We had good, uniform stands, and good harvest conditions, which was a big advantage.”

Buehring said glyphosate drift injury resulted in about 15,000 acres being replanted. “Another 20,000 were kept, but were affected.” CL131 seemed to be the most affected, followed by Cocodrie and Cheniere.

Linscomb said the 343,000 acres of rice planted in Louisiana last year was the smallest number since 1914. “We were off 33 percent from 2005; economics of production was a major factor. Cash price and input costs are big issues.”

He said the Hurricane Rita storm surge also kept a significant number of acres out of production. Following the storm, the area didn't receive enough rain to flush salt from the soil. “In one parish, acreage dropped from 75,000 to 35,000.”

Linscomb said growing conditions for the 2006 crop were good until mid-July. “Then we had a lot of rain that waterlogged fields, followed by a muddy harvest, and that affected the ratoon crop.”

He said narrow brown spot showed up in early July. “Expansion was rapid and by the last few weeks of ripening we saw a lot of damage.”

The disease, which is relatively rare, affects yield, quality, and prospects for a second crop. “We get little or no regrowth; the stalks are dead. We had good growing conditions for a second crop, but not good regrowth.”

The National Agricultural Statistics Service yield estimate of 5,700 pounds per acre could be a bit high, Linscomb says. “I think it's 5,500 to 5,600.”

Wilson said Arkansas growers had “good planting weather” for the 2006 crop. “Half the crop was planted by April 15; then it turned wet and cool in May.” Insect pressure was heavy and the summer was hot ad dry — but “not as much as in 2005. That saved some pumping costs but hurt yield.”

Harvest was “smooth until late September,” Wilson said, “with 12 inches to 15 inches of rain in a weekend. We still had rice in the fields in some areas.”

Greer said spring 2006 was “unusually wet, but then three of the last four springs were unusual.” He said some producers skipped some planting operations because of rain delays. A hot July with 100 degree highs also affected yield.

“We had favorable harvest conditions and good yields early that tapered off. Quality was average.”

Yield averaged 76 hundredweight per acre. “That was better than in 2005, but still not what we want,” Greer said.

He said farmers have identified some red rice infestations, and “We're taking it seriously.”