Published on 05/24/07

Planting lags, crops wither in Georgia drought

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Extreme drought now covers most agricultural areas, delaying peanut and cotton planting and raising concerns for the crops this year.

Dust blows thick across dry Georgia fields, where 66 percent of the soil is reported as very short in moisture, the worst category. Only 7 percent is normally ranked very short at this time of year. In central and south Georgia, where most peanuts and cotton are planted, 70 percent to 90 percent is very short.

"The drought is the worst for this time of year that anyone can ever remember," said John Beasley, a peanut agronomist with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. "We've had a dry April and May before, but never preceded by ... well below normal rainfall from November to March."

Georgia farmers usually start and finish planting peanuts in May. Earlier this spring, Georgia agricultural officials estimated farmers would plant 500,000 acres.

But so far, only 33 percent of that has been planted, according to a Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service survey of county extension agents. Planting is typically more than half over by this time.

Delayed planting can lead to delayed harvest, Beasley said. "If harvest is delayed too much, we run the risk of cold weather in the fall slowing or shutting down maturity. If that occurs, yields and grades are reduced."

But farmers can't think of harvest now. Their immediate concern is getting planted seed to come out of the ground. "Without moisture, peanut seed will not germinate," Beasley said.

Georgia cotton farmers face a similar scenario, said Steve Brown, a UGA Extension cotton agronomist. Most farmers can't think about high yields or quality. They just want rain to come and give them a good reason to get back to planting.

Farmers so far have only planted about 40 percent of the expected 1.1 million cotton acres. Planting is normally more than two-thirds complete by now.

A cotton plant can hold up against some drought stress, he said. Last year proved that. The cotton crop set no records but did surprisingly well despite prolonged dry spells.

"We have never seen cotton die of drought. It can hang on," Brown said. "But you have to get the plant established and get a good stand up first."

The future of Georgia's nonirrigated corn is questionable, said Dewey Lee, a UGA Extension corn agronomist. It still has a chance for OK yields if rain comes soon.

"But every day now that goes by without rain is one less day for recovery," Lee said.

Georgia farmers have completed corn planting. Lee figures they planted close to 425,000 acres, 75,000 fewer than estimated earlier this year. Half the crop is likely planted in fields with irrigation.

Georgia corn will have its highest demand for water over the next month, he said, as it enters a critical developmental stage.

Peanut, cotton and corn teams with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences have recently released publications to help farmers cut costs and manage their crops during the drought.

To find out more, farmers can contact their county UGA Extension offices.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.