Controlling rice diseases is simple, right? At least for your neighbor. He makes 200 bushels per acre, has 70 percent head rice, no sheath blight or blast, and drives one of those strange new pickup/SUV convertible vehicles. Meanwhile, your farm is a favorite for tours by the university rice disease expert.
So what is reality here? As for your neighbor, look up the word exaggeration in the dictionary, and remember that there is no accounting for taste when it comes to vehicles. For the university expert, try to feel some pity and remember that knowing is one thing, doing is something else.
Reality is also that you can improve your rice yields and quality with good disease control practices. But how?
First, focus on good objective information. We live in the information age. Unfortunately, a lot of that information is useless or downright wrong.
So how do you know what is right with regard to rice diseases? Contact your county agent and get what is available from your university rice researchers and Extension specialists. This public information is objective, it is accurate, it is up to date, but it is not free. If you don't believe me, check your tax bill. While not free, public information is worth much more than you pay for it directly — especially in rice.
Okay, you have filled the passenger seat with university publications, now what? Use them to pick the right rice variety for each field — not one variety for the whole farm. Too complicated already? You're thinking, “Granddad grew the best variety, and Dad grew the best variety, and I just want to grow the best variety and don't have time to keep up with a bunch of varieties.”
The problem is, most farms are big and the soil type varies. Even the ability to water fields varies across the farm, and other stuff varies. So your yield varies from field to field as do the disease problems.
Over the years, you should have gotten a feel for which fields have what problems — assuming you or somebody correctly identified the problems over time. Anyway, the idea is — pick a variety that performs the best in a field with its particular problems.
For example, you know that Field X is a sheath blight hole, but it is easy to water and out in the open. So plant a variety that tolerates sheath blight better, like Wells or Ahrent, and avoid Cocodrie.
On the other hand, a field with a history of blast and difficult to water would be more suited to Ahrent or Cocodrie, since they are more resistant to blast than Wells.
The point is, put the right variety in each field and your overall farm yield will go up because all fields are performing and you don't have a couple that “fall through the bottom on yield.”
Third, grow the variety right. What in the world does this mean? Rice varieties are a little like people. They perform best under conditions they like. This means a stand that is not too thick and not too thin. Apply the right amount of nitrogen fertilizer at the right times. Potassium fertilizer if the soil needs it.
These things really make a huge difference on disease control and thus yield and quality of your rice. When a variety lets you down on yield, there is usually a specific reason and it is not because “it's just a sorry variety.” There are too many other farmers getting big yields out of “sorry varieties.” They have figured out the practices that maximize the potential of the variety and minimize any problems.
These practices are worked out for most varieties and defined in university fact sheets with titles like UA's How to Grow Wells Rice. Wow.
Fourth, use fungicides only where needed and only in the amount needed for control of a specific disease. So why not just spray every acre and budget fungicide accordingly? Well, you can do that — and some farmers do every year. After all, it is your money and if you would rather spend it on fungicides than say, a new pickup or a present for the wife, it is certainly okay by me.
On the other hand, all of us in my business have done enough unsuccessful large-scale fungicide trials to know that these chemicals do not always pay for themselves, much less make a profit. Again, this depends on the field, the variety, the diseases there, etc.
How do you decide? Know your field, know your variety, then scout for disease symptoms at the right times. Scouting not only pays off in better profits but is also really good exercise. Fungicide rates and scouting guidelines are available through your Extension office.
You probably have caught on by now that the best way to control rice diseases involves several things — the right variety, good growing practices, scouting fields and fungicides. Educated folks call this integrated pest management or IPM. I just call it common sense.
Rick Cartwright is an Extension plant pathologist with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.