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The benefits of rice con-till systems

The best place to find out how technology works is anywhere it's used on a regular basis. If it's reduced-tillage systems for rice production, ask farmers who invest a ton of time and a chunk of change to test tillage practices and they'll provide details.

As they did at the sixth annual Cotton and Rice Conservation Tillage Conference in Houston. Advantages, farmers on the program said, include opportunities to save soil and water, reduce production costs and, in some cases, do a bit of good for the environment.

“We should have done this 100 years ago,” said Texas rice farmer Steve Balas. “We save money with our minimum-till system.”

Balas raises rice on 1,000 of the 3,000 acres he farms in and around Eagle Lake, Texas.

He also likes the simplicity of reduced-tillage. “After fall preparation, there's nothing left to do in the spring except spray with Roundup and plant with a no-till drill.”

Biggest savings come from fuel, equipment and labor.

Curtis Berry, a Mississippi rice and oats farmer, has found economic and environmental benefits of hybrid rice production. He's cut chemical costs and saved moisture with no-till rice. That's saving him money.

“The right rotation contributes to a successful no-till system,” he said. He also improves wildlife habitat with conservation-tillage. Berry raises 3,300 acres of rice and 350 acres of oats.

Steve Devillier, a Texas rice, soybeans and cattle producer, has been using conservation-tillage methods to grow rice for 11 years.

“From what began more or less as an experiment, I've found plenty of reasons to continue,” Devillier said. His most recent adaptation is to knife in liquid fertilizer with his John Deere no-till drill. “I can fertilize and topdress in one trip.”

He's been farming 28 years and raises 1,000 acres of rice, 350 acres of which are his own and the rest custom work for other landowners. He also raises cattle.

Texas rice farmers Dale Franz and his father, Raymond Franz, maintain a Ducks Unlimited Prairie Wetlands in their rice fields over winter. “The main thing we do is pump water to the fields to give ducks and geese habitat,” Dale said. “Holding water on rice fields helps suppress weeds and grass as well. The waterfowl are attracted to the fields to eat rice left after harvest and the fields provide them with a good place to winter.”

Franz has grown rice for 22 years, raising 750 acres last year. He plans to add crawfish to the rotation.

Stale seedbed planting, in combination with Command herbicide, gives Texas farmer Ronald Gertson a leg up on managing tillage, irrigation and agronomic inputs on 2,500 acres of rice produced by the family operation, Gertson Farms Partnership. They've raised soybeans, cotton and milo, but Gertson said those crops have not been profitable on the shallow sandy loam soil. “Our mainstays are rice and cattle, which we rotate every other year,” Gertson said.

As president of Coastal Bend Groundwater Conservation District and a member of the Lower Colorado Regional Water Planning Group, he sees water issues as extremely important to the future of the rice industry. “Water is the single biggest input for Texas rice farmers, and intensive involvement in state and regional water planning is a necessity if we want to assure our industry has water available at an affordable price.”

Gertson has been farming with his father and three brothers for 20 years. The operation encompasses 8,000 acres, with most of that in the rice/cattle rotation and several hundred acres in improved pasture.

Louisiana rice and crawfish farmer Ernest Girouard says conservation-tillage systems come with about as many options as there are farmers to employ them.

“We have all kinds of systems,” he said. “My conservation practices are not necessarily tillage; I use water to irrigate my rice and to control certain weeds in some fallow land.” He does some conservation-tillage by working land in the fall, holding water and planting in a stale seedbed. He uses a retention pond to reclaim all the water he uses and also traps rain water.

Drought usually is not an issue. The Kaplan, La., area receives from 60 inches to 100 inches of rainfall a year. “We get few days to work our land when it's dry. We have to work when it's wet,” he said.

He holds water on his land up to 30 days before he plants, and then reclaims that same water instead of letting it drain. “I pump it back in my reservoir and provide an area for wildlife habitat, all kinds of birds and waterfowl.”

He plants half of his land one year and leaves the other half fallow, rotating each year. His landlord uses some of the idle land for grazing. In addition to 800 acres of rice, he produces crawfish on 50 to 100 acres.

Dennis Leonards first tried no-till on his Acadia Parish, La., farm to prevent red rice from germinating. He says a lot of technology has come along since to provide multiple options. IMI rice is one of the latest. “It's a breakthrough for weed control in reduced-tillage systems.”

Liberty herbicide, which is similar to Roundup and somewhat nonselective, curtails the amount of ammonia that leaves the red rice, so it dies while genetically modified rice thrives.

No-tilled water-seeded rice started in this area in 1975, primarily because there was little labor available, red rice was a problem, soil erosion needed to be curbed, and farmers were looking for ways to improve water quality. At first the crop was water-seeded in a stale seedbed after soybeans.

“Practices today include drill seeding because of the cold, damp conditions, which is not as successful as water seeding in the stale seedbed.”

But new red rice control systems may eliminate the need to flood the field, giving farmers an opportunity to plant more rice in residue where they get less runoff without working the field. Also, the IMI rice will allow farmers to plant, then go back in to control the weeds. “In the future, rice farmers may go more to the no-till or minimum-till commonly used for other crops as they prepare the seedbed in the fall and use chemicals to control red rice,” Leonards said.

Arkansas rice and soybean farmer Scott Matthews has 18 years of no-till rice production under his belt and has learned the benefits of parking his tillage equipment. He says no-till allows him to plant a few weeks earlier than farmers using conventional-till in northeast Arkansas.

“I'm trying to take all tillage input costs out of the equation,” he says. “When I use 100 percent no-till, I have a noticeable reduction in repairs and a noticeable reduction in chemicals,” he said.

The early planting gives him the option of waiting a few weeks to harvest or harvesting early, before hurricane season. One season of successful early planting and harvesting usually creates an early window to plant the next spring.

Curt Mowery attended his first Conservation Tillage Conference in 1999 and was so impressed that he and his brother, Rodney Mowery, jumped head-first into minimum-till then no-till cropping practices. With their father, Curtis Joe Mowery, they raise 600 acres of rice, 500 acres of wheat, 650 acres of corn and 500 acres of soybeans.

“No matter what soil type or cropping practices you use, this system can work for you and increase your profitability,” Curt aid.

Steve Prather has been no-tilling rice for about seven years on his Mississippi farm. “We started doing a few acres, then we added a few more,” he says.

He changed the system as he went along. For the last seven years, all his rice has been either no-till or minimum-till.

A big benefit of reduced-tillage, he says, is that it allows him to get the crop in earlier. “I can get a stand of rice without having to flush. With no-till we can plant it in the moisture. That saves the process of flushing.”

Since he does not disturb the soil, he's not bringing up new weed seed to germinate. “A burndown with Roundup kills it all. Once I kill that first flush, red rice and other weed seeds have less time to germinate.”

Prather raises 700 acres of rice and 1,000 acres of soybeans on a total of 2,000 acres. He and his son, Justin Prather, who's been with him for five years, and one helper do all the work.

Morgan Smith says converting from conventional farming practices to stale seedbed rice is well-worth the effort. Smith, a Louisiana rice, soybean, cotton, wheat and grain sorghum producer, used conservation-tillage practices on rice for the first time nine years ago. He vows he'll never pull a plow in those fields again.

With the help of seven full-time employees, he manages 8,500 acres, part of which is Woodsland Farms, which includes 2,300 acres of rice and 1,500 acres of soybeans. Some of Smith's rice and soybean acreage has been in a continuous no-till system for six years. Smith planted rice into soybean stubble in 1997 and has continued the conservation-tillage, rice/soybean rotation ever since.

He's made some necessary equipment changes, switching from wheeled tractors to track machines and has altered cultural practices, moving from a dry seedbed-flushing-planting system to a stale seedbed without flushing.

Smith still uses some conventional-tillage, simply because of low seeding rates with foundation seed, which he gets from the state organization and raises to sell registered seed.

Changing from conventional to reduced-tillage systems does not mean a yield drag, says Arkansas rice, corn, wheat and soybean farmer Wayne Wiggins.

His system focuses on saving water and soil in rice and beans while producing high yields.

“Bedded beans may sound like you are helping them up and putting them on top of the bed,” Wiggins said. “But that's not how it works. It's reduced-tillage, so we make fewer trips across the field.”

The Wiggins family farms 2,800 acres of rice, corn, wheat and soybeans near Jonesboro, Ark. Their land is 95 percent irrigated. Early on, they bought into the conservation farming movement and have worked steadily at.

A pioneer in no-till farming, the elder Wiggins has traveled to Mexico, Bolivia and Canada as well as many states promoting conservation-tillage.

Paul Wleczyk, a Texas rice, corn, grain sorghum, and cotton farmer, has discovered benefits of stale seedbed or minimum-till rice farming by experience. “You get the crop in on time,” he said. “Also, there's labor and equipment savings, but the timeliness is what did it for us.”

He prepares the ground in the fall. In spring he plants. There's no-tillage. He uses Roundup for weed control. Wleczyk raises 600 to 700 acres of rice, 300 acres of corn, 1,000 acres of grain sorghum and 200 acres of cotton. “We will do conservation-tillage or minimum-tillage, it depends on what the year will allow,” he explained. “Our corn is almost always planted in a stale seedbed.”

Chuck Greene is a crop consultant from Rayne, La., who's trying to find ways to reduce rice production expenses for his clients.

“Many inputs are fixed and equipment costs are constantly increasing,” he said. “Flooding, draining, and maintaining flood water are no secrets to rice producers, but timing and volume of floodwater along with herbicide use are essential to establish clean rice fields less expensively.”

He said controlling red rice, annual and perennial grasses, broadleaf and aquatic weed creates a never-ending battle in the Southern rice-producing areas. “Using large volumes of water alone and with a combination of herbicides has enabled rice producers to reduce herbicide costs,” he said.

“Command has helped achieve our reduced expense goal. As a preplant, pre-emergence, and postemergence treatment, or in conjunction with proper floodwater timing, Command has given excellent weed control and reduced costs.


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