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Is a little tillage a good thing in rice?

Never say never. That's how a lot of Missouri Bootheel rice producers look at a pure no-till production program.

The term that more closely represents what these upper Mid-South producers are doing is conservation tillage. They say the big cutbacks in tillage passes have helped them cut labor and equipment costs, a blessing in a time of low prices.

But it also helps to keep a few tillage tools in good shape and within easy access. And according to Extension weed scientist Andy Kendig, there may even be a previously unforeseen benefit of occasional tillage.

Kendig, stationed at the Delta Center in Portageville, says that every year a significant percentage of a grower's rice ground will need some tillage to smooth out harvest ruts, maybe 30 percent of individual fields.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that occasional tillage may help control some difficult burndown weeds.

Kendig explained. “I hear a lot about problems with cutleaf eveningprimrose in cotton and ryegrass in corn (both of which can go through several seasons without tillage). But I don't hear about rice producers having those problems. That might be due to the fact that we're working things up every now and then, and that helps out with those two weeds.”

Kendig says that to control the weeds in the respective crops, “cotton producers are making a special application of 2,4-D at burndown for the cutleaf evening primrose. Ryegrass in corn fields is usually taken care of with a special glyphosate application at burndown.”

Farmers, Kendig is quick to point out, are realizing big savings “by not making three passes with the disk and land plane. But I think the focus has changed from no-till to conservation tillage.”

Many rice producers in the Bootheel are also going to very sophisticated and time-sensitive methods of burndown around planting, according to Kendig.

“A lot of the residual herbicides in rice have tank mix labels with glyphosate. Those products include Facet, Bolero, Prowl and Command.

“If it's Prowl or Bolero, it's a delayed pre-emerge application as required by those labels,” Kendig said. “Since the glyphosate is also in the tank mix, you're technically burning down after you've planted. We have a producer who uses the Prowl/glyphosate tank mix and then comes back with an inexpensive broadleaf herbicide. His weed control costs are probably half of the average cost.”

The delayed pre-emerge treatment “will need a significant rainfall or flushing to get the seed germination in the rice before the Prowl or Bolero is applied,” according to Kendig. “It's a crop safety issue.”

Timing is extremely critical for the tank mix application at that point, Kendig stresses. “If the rice has emerged, you definitely don't want to have the glyphosate in the tank mix.”

Another complication is whether or not fields have dried sufficiently to use ground equipment for the application. “If everything goes right, you can get back on it and rutting is not a problem. You have about 12 hours to spare under that scenario. But an aerial application would take care of that problem.”

Facet can also be applied with glyphosate at the delayed pre-emerge timing.

“With Command, you can go out ahead of planting,” Kendig said. “The big issue is flexibility for the producer. The caution with Command is you don't want to go out too far ahead of planting because it may have dissipated by flood-up time.”

Another option is a quart of glyphosate roughly two weeks ahead of planting, then Gramoxone Max at planting. “That burndown approach works fine in rice. If you're a beginner, it's certainly worth trying, instead of all the tricky applications with glyphosate tank mixed with a residual. The glyphosate and the Gramoxone Max really team up together to get a broad spectrum of weeds.”

Kendig says it's important to know which weeds are present when deciding which chemical or tank mix to use. “Growers should do a field-by-field evaluation.”

Kendig says the majority of rice producers in the Bootheel are now going with a stale seedbed approach. “More often than not, they grew soybeans the previous year. They harvest the soybeans and most times the land is in nearly perfect shape for planting rice. Soybeans don't have a lot of residue.”

If the ground does need working up, usually that will be done in the fall or early spring.

About 15 percent of Bootheel rice acreage is no-tilled, and that percentage is growing, “especially the last couple of years as the prices have gone from bad to ridiculous,” Kendig said.

About 50 percent of Bootheel rice is in some type of winter-flooded situation, according to Kendig. “We like to duck hunt as much as anybody. In that situation, you can end up with no vegetation at planting and either no need for a burndown or minimal need for a burndown.”

On the other hand, “we have a lot of the heavy clays in the Bootheel, that when you think they're dry, you need to wait another two weeks before you even think about planting. I have a lot of sympathy for farmers with that soil type. If I were farming that type of ground, I'd be reluctant to put the winter flood on or do anything that might make it wetter.

“Our ground here on the research center in Portageville is tough like that. I always sleep a little better after we get the rice planted.”

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