You can add one more victim to the rains and flooding that caused deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage along the Gulf Coast in late August – 2017 supplies of hybrid rice seed.
The storm cell that stalled over south Louisiana the weekend of Aug. 13-14 and dumped as much as 31 inches of rain in places like Livingston Parish destroyed or damaged thousands of acres of rice across the coastal region.
But the adverse weather conditions didn’t stop there. It continued to rain off-and-on for three weeks, resulting in increased disease and other yield-reducing problems for RiceTec Inc.’s hybrid rice seed production, which is concentrated in an area along the Gulf Coast east and west of Houston.
“We had two things – 1) problems with planting and tough conditions for the second half of our crop and 2) high minimum temperatures during pollination – that took the edge off our yields early on,” said Mike Gumina, RiceTec Inc.’s CEO.
“But the real hammer came during harvest. The first half of the crop we planted came out as we would have expected – good yields and right on target. Then we got hit with the big rainstorm pattern that inundated Baton Rouge, and we became stuck in a three-week period where we just could not get in and harvest.”
Two floods hit rice crop
The three weeks of rain took their toll on the later seed rice, which could have been ready for harvest if RiceTec had been able to plant it in a timely manner.
“The first half of our seed production for the 2017 season went into the ground fine and on schedule and established a good stand,” he said. “Then there was a rainy period. If you look at the weather reports in the places where we plant, which is the area around Houston, we had record rainfall in late April and early May.
“That forced us into a situation where we had to scramble to get the second half of our crop in the ground. We didn’t establish quite the vigorous stand we would like, and we went in under tougher conditions than we would have preferred. But we did manage to get the crop in.”
The high temperatures that occurred in much of the southern Rice Belt weren’t quite “as off the chart as the high-low temperatures,” said Gumina. “So that high low with the high minimum temperatures we think really influenced pollination year and took the edge off our yields.”
Gumina, who worked for DuPont Pioneer before joining RiceTec in 2014, said growing hybrid seed rice can be challenging in the best of circumstances.
Highly complex process
“I spent 34 years with Pioneer Hi-Bred International, and during that time I was responsible for global production,” he said. “I worked with all kinds of crops all over the world, including hybrid rice. But with all that experience with all those crops I would tell you production of hybrid rice is extremely complex.”
For openers, rice is a self-pollinating plant that scientists are trying to turn into a cross-pollinated plant to produce hybrid seed rice. The second complicating factor is that rice is an extremely adaptable species.
“When we deal with corn or sorghum in a cross-pollinated situation, normally we only think about heat and how the plant reacts to an accumulation of heat units,” he noted. “Rice does that as well, but on top of it rice responds to stress, to day-length; in other words, it’s photo-period sensitive, and to light intensity; that is to cloudy or sunny days.
“The plant will adjust its flowering schedule based off that whole complex of environments it’s up against so finding a way create a good cross-pollination with this species that is so fungible is not exactly easy.”
That’s what RiceTec’s scientists are up against when they try to make the crosses needed for hybrid rice. “But what I would tell you is I’m super-impressed with the people here at RiceTec,” he says. “They have developed the methodologies, the management practices and the knowledge base that allows them to be quite successful.
‘Hard thing to do’
“When I compare this to my knowledge of other companies that have tried to do the same thing, they’re really world class. So I just wanted to set up the conversation based off those realities. It’s a really hard thing to do, and we have good people trying to do it.”
Back on this year’s seed production, Gumina said the three weeks of rainy weather in August caused the worst of all worlds for a rice producer.
“The crop was ready to be harvested and what happened was we got a big bloom of disease and the stuff started to sprout in the panicle when it kept raining,” he said. “By the time we got into that part of our season we really suffered a major loss of viable seed coming out of that last half of our production.”
“All in all, we’re going to be well short of demand – there’s just no doubt about that,” he said.
RiceTec is now going “customer to customer” and talking to them about how much hybrid rice seed they can supply each of them in 2017. He declined to put an estimate on how much supplies will be down because it varies from hybrid to hybrid and from region to region.
“We also had a bit of a short crop in 2015,” he said. “While our mainstream products came out pretty good, we ended up a bit short on some of our new materials, such as XL760 and Gemini, and some of our old materials, such as XL723 and Clearfield XL729. So we started off with a little bit less inventory than what we had planned to produce in 2015 for 2016.
300,000 additional acres
“On top of that we had planned that total production in 2016 would be about 2.1 million acres of long grain rice,” Gumina noted, “And it ended up being closer to 2.4 million acres. So that put us in a sold-out position in 2016 and basically left us with no carryover supply to buffer this kind of shortfall. We came into the 2017 campaign with no inventory at all.”
Now that the 2016 harvest is complete, RiceTec is trying to deliver the highest germination seed possible to its customers.
“We did install a new process this year that uses a unique technology that allows us to better set our equipment; to sort out the good seed from the damaged seed; and that’s really paying dividends for us this year,” Gumina said. (The technology allows inspectors to “see” inside the rice hull and determine if the seed is viable.)
“But I would say this is a situation where nobody is happy – our owners aren’t happy, our employees are not happy, our distribution channels are not happy and, most importantly, some of our customers are disappointed, and we take that quite seriously.”
RiceTec is already looking at ways to prevent a recurrence of the situation by expanding its seed production into the Louisiana coastal area. (RiceTec cannot produce hybrid rice in areas much further south or much further north than the Gulf Coast where most of its hybrid seed is grown.)
Company executives are also continuing efforts to broaden the available supplies by lowering the barriers to imported seed rice. That includes a pilot program involving hybrid rice being grown in South America.
“These restrictions have been in place for a number of years, and we know there are concerns about introducing diseases and other problems in seed rice,” says Gumina. “We’re working to show we can do this by addressing those concerns.”
For more information on RiceTec, visit http://www.ricetec.com/.