New rice variety Saber makes great showing

If rice varieties had personal ads, Saber's might read: A semi-dwarf out of Texas, I'm a new variety that contains a unique combination of traits conducive to both main and ratoon crops, excellent milling yield and improved resistance to blast and sheath blight. Am looking for heavy Delta soils. No lesser varieties need respond.

If advance notices are true, Saber is still at home waiting for a phone call. No other rice variety can compare, say those who have grown it.

Field days, friendships

Every summer, Mike Bryant used to load up a few farming friends and road-trip across the border. First stop was the rice station at Beaumont, Texas, followed by a swing through the station at Crowley, La. The group always had a big time, but its business was serious.

“Those stations used to have their field days just a day apart, so we'd catch both. We went down there to see what the out-of-state researchers and breeders were cooking up. We wanted some killer new rice variety. We wanted to bring something new home with us, something that would work in our soils,” says Bryant, who farms around Noble Lake, Ark.

Why look for rice varieties in neighboring states? Louisiana and Texas have rice near the coast, says Bryant. Farmers there often face hurricanes and strong winds and tend to grow semi-dwarf varieties. Bryant and other Arkansas rice farmers outside the Grand Prairie (where taller varieties are the norm) say the semi-dwarves work better. As most of the state's varieties are suited to the traditionally strong rice-growing Grand Prairie, Bryant and others looked south.

“That's why we've hit the road and visited them as much as we have,” he says.

Also constantly trolling for the next big rice variety is Bryant's friend, seed dealer Heath Moncrief with Dumas Seed Cleaners. A few years ago, he met Robert Weatherton, rice foundation seed manager at the Texas A&M Beaumont station.

“Robert is top-notch. We hit it off immediately. He knows rice, he knows what we want and he's always good to share information,” says Moncrief.

When Jefferson first came out, Weatherton was very helpful in getting Moncrief on the list to get some seed. Moncrief remembered and “constantly gave him feedback about what we were seeing in Arkansas fields.”

When Saber started making noise in Beaumont, Weatherton told Moncrief it might be a variety Arkansas farmers would be interested in. He was right.

Some particulars

Out of several parents, including Gulfmont, Katy and a Chinese variety, Teqing, work was started on Saber in 1988. The variety offers a stellar set of credentials. Among them:

  • Maturity/lodging: While at a Cocodrie medium-maturing level, Saber is about a week earlier than Cypress. The height of Cypress, Saber has shown no lodging problems “at all” at normal seeding rates, says Weatherton.

    This year, Weatherton planted Saber at 50 pounds per acre drilled on 7.5-inch centers. “I went back and tied up the ends. At row ends, you sometimes get too much seed — there might be the equivalent to 100 pounds per acre there. On those areas, there are a few lodging problems.”

    Weatherton says that's the only caveat in his praise of Saber — and any lodging problem is strictly due to large populations. On the overseeded row ends, the plants are packed in tightly and are fighting for space and sun. That means they grow tall and thin. A heavy grain load on such thin plants makes them susceptible to falling over.

  • Milling: “The milling quality of Saber is fantastic — it can be harvested down at 16 to 17 percent and still mill well. It has a high yield.”

  • Versatility: In Texas, it stands as a good variety because farmers do a lot of ratoon cropping.

  • Disease package: Weatherton insists that the big deal with Saber is its disease package. No other variety on the market has such credentials, he says.

    “It has the highest sheath blight and blast resistance of any variety in that combination. Blast resistance is equal to an older variety called Katy. The resistance package alone puts Saber on the market as a strong player.”

    It hasn't been talked about much, but Saber is also highly resistant to narrow brown leaf spot, says Weatherton. Narrow brown leaf spot usually shows up during a hot year when it attacks the flag leaf. While it doesn't harm the plant, problems with it are associated with milling.

  • Tillering: The tillering is as good, if not better, than Cypress, says Moncrief. Currently, Cypress is acknowledged as one of the higher-tillering varieties on the commercial market.

  • Yield: Last year, Weatherton grew 9 acres of Saber at 35 pounds per acre. It yielded dry (at 12 percent moisture) over 6,600 pounds per acre. It milled at 67/73.

This year, he planted 50 pounds per acre on 35 acres. “I had a scientist do a yield-component study. He says such studies often turn out a little high. But with this crop he says we should get around 9,000 pounds per acre. That's 200 bushels — simply amazing.”

When harvested on Aug. 10, yields weren't far off the 9,000-pound estimate. Saber yielded 8,525 pounds at 17.9 percent moisture. It also milled an impressive 66/71.

The grain is more slender than Gulfmont and similar to Labelle. Weatherton says in trials conducted over the last five years, Saber has yields equal to Cypress and better than both Gulfmont and Jefferson.

Saving money

This year, Moncrief said, another Arkansas seed producer, Chip Hill, decided not to spray his Saber field with fungicide. “The field has done great even without the spraying,” says Moncrief.

Bryant, who is growing Saber for seed, sprayed his as a precaution.

“I didn't have to spray it, but I did. We weren't sure about the smut. So we put 4 ounces of Tilt out just to cover all bases. Growing seed, I want the purest, cleanest environment. It may be tempting to cut corners, but we never do,” says Bryant.

Moncrief acknowledges he's rubbing a crystal ball, “but if Saber turns out like we think it will — as long as it can yield with Cocodrie — the farmer will be way ahead because he can back off on fungicides and some other things. You can save $35 or $40 per acre just on fungicides. You look at those savings over a 1,000 acre farm and that's impressive.”

“So far, Saber is almost perfect. If you've got heavier soils, this may be what you were waiting on,” says Weatherton.

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