A frank discussion on furrow-irrigated rice ‘savings’

Farmers ask questions about savings, best management practices for furrow-irrigated or row rice in production meeting in Rayville, La.

Leave it to a farmer to ask the hard question.

“So where are the big savings?” said Buddy Pierce, a rice and soybean producer from Jonesville, La., when Dustin Harrell completed his presentation at a Row Rice Production meeting in Rayville, La.

Dr. Harrell, Extension rice specialist for the LSU AgCenter, gave a thoughtful, balanced assessment of the ins and outs of growing row rice that ended with some things farmers might and might not expect from the new production practice.

Those thoughts summed up what growers from the Missouri Bootheel down to the Louisiana Gulf Coast are experiencing with row rice: In some fields, they see reduced water use and input costs; in others, the savings don’t offset the yield reduction growers find when they harvest those fields.

Dr. Harrell chuckled in response to Pierce’s question, which drew several “amens” from other producers in the audience.

“Well, the farm bill has to be included in this because of the PLC program for rice,” he said. “Beyond that I think you’re going to have less tillage, so there will be a savings there. You’re not worrying about leveling fields like you normally would in traditional rice.

“So there are some tillage savings, and then there’s the convenience of last-minute decisions on what crop you’re going to plant. I think that plays a big role because you can choose, you can kind of get a field ready and make those last-minute decisions.”

Price Loss Coverage

PLC is the Price Loss Coverage program of the 2014 farm bill. In many cases, PLC payments for rice have been higher than for other crops, which have become increasingly important in the low-price farmers find themselves in.

“One of the comments Darrell Vandeven made, and he’s been successful with it for three years, is that, in times like now when prices are depressed, he can manage every field the same,” said Keith Collins, Extension chairman for Richland Parish and one of the hosts for the meeting.

“He can go in and row it up and have it ready, and when he makes the decision on what he wants to plant, if he wants to plant rice, he’s ready to go. He doesn’t have the levees to deal with, and I think that’s an advantage, too.”

During his presentation, Dr. Harrell listed a number of expectations he thinks farmers and consultants should have if they decide to try furrow-irrigated or row rice for the first time on their farms. Those comments led to Peirce’s question.

“We’ve heard a lot of good stories about furrow-irrigated rice yielding as well or even better, but don’t expect that,” he said. “Don’t go in thinking it’s going to be the same or better because you may really be disappointed. Go in expecting you’ll take a 10 percent yield loss, and you won’t be upset because you knew that was a possibility.

Lowering expectations

“Water use can be the same as what we have on our traditional flooded rice, or it could be less. But don’t think it’s always going to be less or the same. It could be more,” he said. “They had a verification field in Arkansas where they are doing furrow-irrigated rice. They had a drought situation, and they applied 45 acre-inches of water. That’s 10 acre-inches more than we normally apply.

“So don’t always expect to have savings on furrow-irrigated rice. There’s a very good possibility you will, but you could get in a situation where you could use more and you need to be cognizant of that situation.”

Growers should expect to make one additional herbicide application for furrow-irrigated rice. “Remember we need to overlap and try to include a residual in each of our applications,” he said. “So there is a potential for increased weed control expenses.

Expect to use more nitrogen. “Go in there knowing you may need to apply about 100 pounds more of urea and have one additional application for flying the nitrogen on that field,” Harrell noted. “Typically, because we’re growing in upland conditions, nitrogen use efficiency will be low so there will be more nitrogen lost than we see in our traditional rice production.”

Expect to spend more on fungicides. “Bottom line, it’s best to use a hybrid,” he noted.  “If you’re going to use a conventional variety, bank on two fungicide applications. Don’t go in thinking you’re going to do one. You’re putting them in a situation where they’re very vulnerable to blast.”

Water wars in the future?

Scott Franklin, vice president of the Northeast Louisiana Rice Growers Association and one of the organizers of the meeting, said growers may see some reduction in harvest costs because fields are not as likely to be as muddy in row rice situations and in conventional, flooded field conditions.

“I’m sure we’ve all driven by fields of conventional rice and seen the combine buried up to the axle because of field conditions at harvest,” he said. “You’re not as likely to see that in furrow-irrigated rice.”

In an interview following the meeting, Franklin said the potential for water savings may be the biggest draw for rice row.

“I think row rice has a place,” he said. “When we talk about the benefits of row rice the first thing we think about is how much water you save, and as a young person, I think it is important to think about that and have that mindset.”

Louisiana rice farmers have seemingly abundant supplies of water now, but that probably won’t always be the case. “One day there is going to be a battle for water – there’s no question about it,” he said. “It’s already going on in California; it affects the rice industry there. We have a plentiful supply, but you never know what the future’s going to hold.”

Franklin said some producers in northeast Louisiana are showing row rice can work. “We have some who have proven that it is – when you take care and follow the rules – a smarter and better way to farm rice. It’s not a perfect science, there’s still a long ways to go, but more people have had success with it than didn’t.”

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