The importance of rice breeding in the Mid-South

The importance of rice breeding in the Mid-South

What does it take to bring a new rice variety to market? Arkansas rice breeding program explained.

Arkansas produces the most rice of any state and it stands to reason that state researchers are hard at work to keep it that way. One key piece to that puzzle: making sure a breeding program remains robust.

In early November, Jarrod Hardke, rice Extension agronomist for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, spoke with Delta Farm Press about the program, the process for bringing a new variety to producers and an extremely promising cultivar waiting in the wings. Among his comments:

On the rice breeding process and research in Arkansas…

“I lead the Arkansas Rice Performance Trials (ARPTs), which are our standardized trials for evaluating commercial cultivars, releases from other universities we may not have a great deal of information on, and a vast number of lead experimental lines out of the University of Arkansas. This is our most advanced yield testing program so, once entries make it that far they’ve shown great promise in the preliminary processes of variety development.

“We try to plant in five or six ARPT locations throughout the state each year. There are a total of 90 entries of which there are about 20 commercial and 70 experimental entries annually. Really, we have developed consistent ‘homes’ for the five or six locations. Among them, one is always planted at the Rice Research and Experiment Station in Stuttgart; one is at Pine Tree Station near Colt; one at the Northeast Research and Extension Center in Keiser.

“All of the stations are good, representative spots with different soil types. However, because they don’t reach the full extent of the state, we plant another trial on a grower’s field in Clay County. That gets us to the most northern part of the state. Another trial goes in a grower field in Desha County, which puts us in the southern part of the state.

“In those trials we’re evaluating grain yield and milling yield for quality. Samples are sent off to check all the industry grain characteristics including chalk, amylose content, gel temperature, all the things that will have an effect on how the rice will be processed.”

Trials, time

Regarding on-farm trials…

“In addition, we do a number of on-farm variety trials every year. Those deal with a much smaller subset consisting of the most widely planted commercial varieties along with only a handful of the most promising experimental lines that are the closest to release. These trials are grown under the management of the production field they’re planted in, with no real standard of control like when we grow them on a research station. That provides a clearer picture of how they’ll do in a real-world situation.

“To put together a complete management plan for each cultivar that is to be released, we also enter each lead line into our planting date studies. There, they’re evaluated for development so we can provide thresholds for how long it takes to get to key growth stages. That data is then entered in our DD50 program, which lets the producer get on a computer and print a report that describes what to expect, and when, from the cultivar during the growing season. We also look at nitrogen trials and disease packages – everything is aimed at providing a complete management plan for the producer.”

How long does it typically take for a variety to get from conception to finished product?

“From when the initial cross is made to passing all the hurdles through advanced testing and release it takes about eight years. That’s actually pretty fast for a variety to standout early and then move on through. That may not sound very quick to someone outside research but it really is. Anyone familiar with breeding rice will tell you that.

“As a breeder, you start off with tiny amounts of seed and the initial concern is always quality. Does it even fit our market? Does it have the grain characteristics that the buyer wants? If it doesn’t pass muster with those initial questions, boom, it’s gone.

“If it does meet the initial concerns, you have to grow out that tiny amount of seed. Each year, if it progresses through research, there will be a bit more seed to meet the checks and move it into different fields for testing. Our general standard for a new release is it has to be in our advanced yield trial testing for a minimum of three years. So there would be five years of development since the initial cross before it even made it into advanced testing.

“Nothing is a definite slam dunk. Despite all the testing, all the accumulated data and our diligence, there is still a difference between developing a cultivar through plot work and planting it in a commercial manner on thousands of acres for the first time. That gap can’t be completely bridged but our goal is to make that gap as small as possible for the grower.”

Successes

How does rice breeding stack up next to other grains?

“This is a process that all the breeding programs must go through. Certainly, every crop has its own unique issues. Some other commodities have difficulties we don’t have in rice, and even within rice there are differences in breeding to develop varieties versus hybrids.  Each has its advantages and disadvantages.”

On successes in the rice breeding program…

“The most recent success for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture is Roy J. It was commercialized in 2010 and in the past few years it’s been grown on 12 to 14 percent of the state’s rice acres. Roy J has industry-leading stalk strength and won’t lodge from high winds compared to the other varieties out there. It provides a lot of insurance for growers when it comes time to harvest if conditions aren’t the best. It allows producers more time to get to the crop in case another field, or crop, needs immediate attention.

“Prior to Roy J, there were very successful releases in 1999 and 2002 with Wells and Francis. For years, those two varieties combined to occupy about 50 percent of the state’s acres.

“This winter we may release another variety that is showing great potential in yield. The story on these, as I said before, is really written once they’re in growers’ hands. But from university data, it looks like the most exceptional variety we’ve seen since Roy J. It appears to be able to move the bar in a big way.”

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