Switching from catfish to rice

One of the consequences of falling catfish prices is the removal of ponds from production. Many of those ponds will end up planted in rice. What are the issues surrounding such a switch?

“I’ve had a few calls from farmers asking about this,” says Chuck Wilson, Arkansas Extension rice specialist. “I’m told more ponds are going into rice.”

Wilson says such a dramatic shift shouldn’t be done without serious consideration and study.

“Really it all boils down to which crop — rice or catfish — is perceived to be more profitable. Obviously, if the soil will hold water for catfish it’ll do fine with rice. That’s one positive for the switch.”

One main concern with catfish-to-rice is potentially high salt levels. Some land was put in ponds many years ago because local water was too salty for growing rice.

That isn’t always the case, though. Some catfish ponds may have salty soils because salt is sometimes applied as a disease-control agent for the fish. Before making the switch, producers must know what the salt levels are, says Wilson.

Normally, after long-term fish production, enough fish manure is left behind that nitrogen fertilizer levels are high. There’s a good chance a producer won’t need to apply any nitrogen the first season with rice.

“In light of the cost of fertilizer input costs these days, that’s another plus. Initially, there’s a large amount of nitrogen. The thing is, it’s very hard to say how long that will last. You almost have to grow it by the seat of your pants.

“After that first year growing rice, will you need to add fertilizer? No one can say for sure. However, we’re very close to developing a nitrogen soil test for rice. In the near future, we’ll be able to tell how long that residual will last. But right now, we don’t have that capability.”

As for actually growing rice, there aren’t many more considerations. You must be able to get water on and off in a timely manner. Water management is a key to a good crop.

“Now, it’s sometimes hard to make a quick turnaround between the two crops. Some producers tell me they have a hard time getting the pond, or field, dry enough to make the switch. In fact, once they’ve drained the pond and planned to plant rice, it’s not the next spring they’re able to plant, but a year later.”

Former ponds can also stay wetter at the end of the season when trying to harvest rice.

“If you’re planning on water-seeding, the wetter soils aren’t as big of an obstacle. But, again, getting it dry enough to harvest is an issue.”

What about prep work on the ponds? “It depends on the pond structure. Some have a steep slope and that hinders a rice operation. Other ponds may be 6 feet deep on one end and 3 feet deep on the other. That’s too deep for rice. So if it’s going to rice, levees will have to be pulled. That, in turn, means the soil has to be dry enough to do that work.”

But again, to grow rice, a producer must control the water. “So you’ve either got to squeeze levees through the mud or wait for the soils to dry down. When there’s such a severe slope, that’s the only option.

“Once the water control and levees are squared away you can make a decision to till it off and drill it or flood it up and water-seed it.”

Are catfish producers Wilson has worked with looking to hedge bets with rice with a potential move back to catfish?

“From the questions I’ve fielded on this, I’m sure some are. But I also know some catfish producers say they’re getting out of aquaculture completely and have done dirt work — taken some of the slope out — to make their former ponds good rice fields.”

Depending on how long ponds have been there, “a ‘ponding effect’ — for lack of a better term — may be evident in the middles. That means there isn’t just a slope from the pond’s front to back but ponding in the middle. That can limit how wide a rice field can be.”

Wilson suspects that a lot of producers contemplating a switch to rice “are entrepreneurial enough to know an advantage is they can go back to catfish, should that industry become more lucrative than rice.”

On the flip side, “I’ve worked with several row-crop growers who have taken over catfish ponds. They just took over the ponds and wanted to put them in rice. That’s happening too.”

Anyone contemplating a catfish-to-rice switch “shouldn’t assume they’ll be able to do it quickly. That has to be emphasized. Drying down the ponds can be a major, major issue.”

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