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Grooving gets rice off to good start

If you hear the Berken brothers of Lake Arthur are grooving in their rice fields, that doesn't mean you'll find them swaying to a funky disco beat. For them, grooving is a technique for planting rice.

“We've been doing that for 15 years,” Clarence Berken said.

Here's how it works: a cylinder 30 inches in diameter and 22 feet wide is mounted in a frame and towed behind a tractor. It indents shallow grooves 7 inches apart and lightly compacts the soil surface. The field is flooded and then planted by airplane with pre-sprouted seed.

Even if a strong March wind blows, as it often does near the marsh, the seeds fall into the grooves instead of being dispersed in uneven clumps across the field.

“The grooves make the seed stay in place,” said Stephen Berken. “With grooving you'll have a good, even stand throughout the field. It looks like the field has been drilled.”

Without grooves, he said, “We could have areas as big as that tractor with only five or six seeds.”

The grooving method helps the Berkens, since they say drill seeding — where rice seeds are planted in the ground by tractor-driven equipment — can't be used on much of their land, because weather does not always allow time. Drilling also promotes red rice growth in fields not planted with the Clearfield rice variety. “We grooved only fields that were not fall stale- or dry-planted,” Clarence Berken said. “About 800 acres were grooved this year.”

The method has extra benefits, since the Berkens don't have to calibrate, maintain or store an expensive drill.

Also, grooving reduces silt in runoff water. “You don't lose a lot of topsoil,” Clarence Berken said, pointing to a nearby ditch where water had run after flushing the planted field.

Other methods that require “mudding in” are less expensive, he said, but require working equipment in the mud, and they aren't as environmentally friendly.

The Berkens use a herbicide before planting to suppress red rice in grooved fields where red rice infestations have been severe.

Stephen Berken, the oldest of three rice-farming brothers, said they got the grooving idea from a neighbor. At first, they used a packer that would leave grooves but not prominent enough to be effective, Berken said, adding that he and his brothers had a groover built by local fabricator, Hughes Welding, using a unique angle iron found only in California. Berken built the frame that also can accommodate other equipment.

Eddie Eskew, an LSU AgCenter county agent in Jefferson Davis Parish, said he doesn't know of any other farmers who use the technique.

Steve Linscombe, the LSU AgCenter's regional director for southwest Louisiana and a prominent rice expert, said grooving is used in California and was tried here about 20 years ago. Many farmers soured on the technique after a couple years of bad weather prevented them from getting into their fields, he said.

Bruce Schultz writes for LSU AgCenter Communications. Contact him at 337-788-8821 or [email protected].

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