Just a sprinkling of rain now could do Evans County farmers more harm than good. It's showers they need, says their county agent.
Farmers around Claxton are resorting to "dusting in" cotton and peanut seed, planting shallower than usual so that less rain will be needed for germination, explained Mike Dollar, Evans County coordinator for the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. Deadlines loom from Mother Nature and Federal Crop Insurance.
"As ironic as it sounds, a two-tenths of an inch rain does more harm than good, now," Dollar said. "Basically, that's enough to try to get the seed to start to sprout, but it's not enough to sustain it, to get it up out of the ground. What they're hoping for now would be a half inch or greater rainfall."
Rainfall over the past two months has been 5-7 inches less than normal for the time period, he estimates. The latest measurable rains, May 26-28, totaled from two-tenths (0.2) to six-tenths (0.6) of an inch over various parts of Evans County.
In the areas that received sixth-tenths, some farmers resumed planting Saturday and continued Sunday, Dollar observed. Then they stopped.
"It appears that that was enough rainfall to get the peanuts and the cotton up out of the ground, barely, but that's it," Dollar said. "The moisture has run out.".
That leaves his county's expected 8,000 acres of cotton about 60 percent planted, at a point in the year when 85-90 percent of the seed would ordinarily be in the ground. Roughly 70 percent of the 2,000 or so peanut acres have been planted, he figures, but by now peanut planting should be nearly complete.
For farmers who signed up for crop insurance, the deadline to have all of their cotton planted for maximum coverage passed on May 31. For peanuts, the deadline is Sunday, June 5. Beyond those dates, the insured amount declines by 1 percent daily, then disappears entirely for acreage not planted by June 15, explained John Beasley, a Claxton-based independent insurance agent.
Various companies sell the insurance, which is subsidized by the federal government. Farmers can buy different levels of coverage, up to 85 percent of past yields on cotton and peanuts. Without crop insurance, farmers become ineligible for federal disaster relief programs, Beasley noted.
So the insurance deadlines are an incentive to take the risky step of "dusting in" seed in hope that sufficient rain will follow. Meanwhile, temperatures topping 95 degrees are speeding evaporation.
Nature also imposes a deadline, with frost in the fall. With peanuts requiring about 140 days to fully mature, the average date of first frost here makes June 5 about the last safe planting date. With cotton, June 10-15 is nature's planting deadline, Dollar said.
Growers sometimes plant or replant beyond those dates, but know they are taking a risk. An early frost could cut the season short.
"You sacrifice some yield. Some years that's not much; some years it's a pretty good bit," Dollar said. "It just depends on when the frost date is."
If the target dates for planting cotton and peanuts pass, farmers who have the necessary equipment could switch unplanted acres to soybeans, Dollar notes. With cotton prices at record highs and peanut prices strong, the trend had been in the opposite direction, displacing soybean acreage.
Irrigation will help, where it is available. About 50-60 percent of Evans County's cotton, and 50-70 its percent of peanuts, are within reach of irrigation, Dollar estimates.
He also figures that about half of local all irrigation is supplied by wells. The other half comes from surface water.
"We have some ponds in the county that probably have one more good watering in them, and then they will be so low that we can't access the water," Dollar said.
Corn was planted earlier, and growers have depleted their ponds to keep it alive. About half of the corn in Evans County is irrigated and "just kind of holding on," Dollar said. Another 700-1,000 acres, lacking irrigation, are now parched beyond the prospect of recovery.
"For all practical purposes, this week the dryland corn is over with," Dollar said. "It's done. It will not come back from this."