LAKE VILLAGE, Ark. – Arkansas farmers with irrigated cornfields are experiencing bumper crops that experts say is linked to warm spring temperatures. Additional production comes at a time when a lack of wet weather across the Midwest has shrunk corn yields and sent the price per bushel flying.

Last year corn was the fourth most valuable crop to be planted in Arkansas at an estimated market value of $458 million, a 43 percent increase compared with 2010. A total of 560,000 acres of corn were planted in 2011, according to United States Department of Agriculture data.

According to Monday’s report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, corn harvest accelerated to 16 percent complete, up from 6 percent the previous week. Seventy-two percent of the crop was mature, up from 51 percent the previous week.

“This is probably the best corn crop I’ve ever seen and it’s because of the right type of ”temperatures, said Gus Wilson, extension staff chair for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture in Chicot County, which is in the southeast corner of the state and is bounded by the Mississippi River to the east. 

During the crop’s most critical stage, which is pollination, spring temperatures were warm during the day and cool at night, he said. 

Early birds got a crop
Seeds were planted in February, said Wilson, adding that corn needs as few as 110 days to mature, depending on the variety.

The county that borders Louisiana and Mississippi experienced its second-warmest spring on record, according to data from the National Weather Service’s seasonal average temperature extreme data.

The warm temperatures in March and April were beneficial to corn, they allowed corn to emerge uniformly and grow well, Jason Kelley, an extension wheat and feed grains specialist with the U of A System Division of Agriculture.

Kelley characterized the February plantings as very early.

“Much of our corn was past silking when the temperatures got very hot and the drought intensified,” Kelley said, describing part of the corn development process that can be most sensitive to high temperatures and lack of rainfall.

Wilson said the combination of the temperatures and irrigated fields pushed county-level yields higher. He estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the fields cultivated for corn in Chicot County are irrigated.

This year’s yield has ranged from 195 to 240 bushels per acre. 

The Chicot County surplus is better seen in comparison with a more normal corn yields - between 180 to 200 bushels per acre. And the county is seeing more corn production as farmers have switched from cotton to corn over the last five years - a move coinciding with a tanking cotton market, said Wilson.

He added Chicot County corn farmers have been forced to irrigate two to three times more this year than in 2011 to compensate for the lack of rain. 

The cost to irrigate an acre of corn is about $60, Wilson estimated.

Currently, about 53 percent of Arkansas remains in a state of “exceptional drought” the worst category, according to Thursday’s U.S. Drought Monitor Map. 

In 2011, Chicot County ranked second in corn area planting at less than 36,000 acres of corn, behind Jefferson County. 

This year, an estimated 660,000 acres of corn were planted, an 18 percent increase compared with 2011, USDA data show.

Drought gave corn a beating in the Midwest, where most corn is not irrigated. 

The price is right
The preliminary national price per bushel was $7.36 in July, compared with the average of $5.40 per bushel in 2010. Arkansas producers in 2010 got paid an average $4.70 per bushel, according to USDA data.

One bushel is the equivalent of 56 pounds.

“When you’re getting $7 for corn and you have an increase in yield of 23 to 30 bushels per acre,” Wilson said. “That’s another $210 an acre and that’s money coming in.”

Growers who did not book prices in advance are seeing their “corn old across the scales bringing in $7.50 to $8, depending on the grain company,” he said. “We are close to 95 percent irrigated and I do see an increase in corn acres for 2012 if the price stays above $6 in Chicot County, with a loss in cotton and rice acres.”

Kelley said 2012 is a significant year for corn production in Arkansas because there’s “more corn than since the 1950's and more corn than cotton for the first time since the 1940’s.”
And “yields this year have been excellent so far in Chicot and other counties.” 

The top five corn-producing counties in Arkansas are Jefferson, Chicot, Phillips, Lonoke and Clay.

However, “without irrigation, we would be in the same shape as much of the Midwest is right now,” adding that about 90 percent of the state’s corn crop is irrigated, he said.

Irrigation is expensive, however, the increased yields with irrigation definitely outweigh the additional costs, Kelley wrote.

Given the prices and the ability to irrigate, acreage may increase next year. 

Brent Griffin, Prairie County extension staff chair for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said he expected “acres will increase by 25 to 30 percent next year if price holds at $6 level. Prairie County will have 20,000 to 25,000 acres in 2013,” up from this year’s 15,000 acres. 

For drought information, visit http://arkdroughtresourcecenter.wordpress.com.