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Low-till, no-till pay off for rice farmers

Rice farmer David Landreneau was stung by the criticism of friends and family after going to a no-till system on some of his rice acreage — a planting approach that leaves fields littered with the residue of dead weeds and the previous year's crop at planting time.

But the criticism didn't stop Landreneau, who now says the results have made the switch worthwhile.

Under such a system of planting, special drill-seed planting equipment cuts through the residue to drop new seeds about 1-inch deep in the soil. But this approach, which has numerous benefits, is used by only a fraction of rice farmers in south Louisiana.

“My daddy is 74 years old, and I listen to him quite a bit,” said Landreneau, who farms north of Eunice, La. “He's the biggest critic I've got.”

Landreneau's dad thought no-till might equal no luck at harvest, even though Landreneau was working with a crop adviser who assured him a no-till approach wouldn't hurt yields and that it would lower his expenses for fuel, labor and equipment.

“My dad said the field was ugly and I shouldn't believe everything those boys were telling me,” Landreneau told a crowd of 125 rice farmers at a conference on reduced tillage at the LSU AgCenter's Acadia Parish Extension.

Today, Landreneau is glad he tried the no-till approach. He cut 49 barrels of rice per acre on the no-till portion of his farm — his best results of the year.

Better yet, at planting time in mid-April, he had seeded the no-till area at just 72 pounds of rice per acre on the no-till land. He water-seeded his other acreage at 100 pounds of seed per acre.

“The yields were 5 to 9 barrels per acre less on the water-seeded,” he said.

Landreneau was among five south Louisiana farmers who joined in a panel discussion on the merits of no-till or reduced-tillage planting during the half-day seminar.

They said benefits to the system include that equipment lasts longer because it's not being used as often to plow under weeds or stubble in the months prior to planting. Other benefits cited include that the residue of old vegetation in fields retains water longer and the ground cover lowers soil temperatures slightly and slows evaporation — which means farmers use less water during the growing season. And yields are as good as or better than ever.

Still, several farmers said the system is not foolproof.

No-till rice production requires the use of herbicides early in the year (late January or early February) to chemically burn down weeds prior to a March or April planting. And seed cannot be planted too deeply in the soil (more than 1 inch could be pushing it) or the new crop could have trouble bursting through the old, dead and dying vegetation, several farmers said.

Landreneau said he readjusted his drill-seeding equipment halfway through planting this spring because he thought planting rice seed at a depth of three-quarters of an inch was too shallow — even though a crop adviser told him it was fine.

But his shallow rice performed better than seed planted deeper in the soil.

Rice planted too deep “came up slow and looked like hell,” Landreneau said. His best rice was “where I cut through the soybean residue (2002's crop) and you saw the rice seed in the trenches.”

Johnny Saichuk, the LSU AgCenter's rice specialist, said he recommends at least two chemical burndowns of weeds — one early and one right before planting.

Charles Reiners, a rice farmer on hand at the seminar, said he sprayed his fields three times for weeds prior to this spring's planting — first in November, then again in February and at planting.

Reiners said using a reduced tillage system means spending a bit more money on herbicides but less on fuel, labor, water and maintenance.

“It worked well. Yields were good. But we're still learning a whole new set of rules,” Reiners said.

John F. Bradley, a conservation tillage specialist with Monsanto Corp., said no-till and low-till approaches to farming are a tough sell with some farmers.

Fields look poorly prepared in a no-till system because of vegetation residue left behind. With the systems, farmers replace tillage (plowing the soil) with the earlier use of Roundup and other herbicides to control weeds, Bradley told the audience.

Managing the residue left behind becomes very important, he added.

“At planting you want your new crop to be able to get ahead,” Bradley said. “You want weeds that are crispy-critter dead where they crunch under your feet when you walk through a field.”

That allows drill-seed planting equipment to more easily penetrate the dead and rotting residue, so there is seed-to-soil contact and the new crop gets off to a fast start.

What are other advantages to no-till?

The decomposing vegetation and residue in a field minimizes soil erosion, boosts water retention in the soil, slows the rate of water evaporation, and can mean rice farmers use less water during the growing season, Bradley said. That reduces the risk of runoff of pesticides and other chemicals into the environment, he said.

There also is an estimated savings of $12 to $40 per acre depending on how much a farmer cuts back on trips into the field to turn the soil over, the Monsanto expert said.

Resisting the urge to till the soil too much allows a grower to “farm more acres with the same labor and equipment and save on fuel costs,” Bradley said, stressing equipment also will last longer because it's not being used as much.

But reduced tillage doesn't mean a farmer never tills. He will still move earth at times to level land, repair levees in a rice field, clear ruts and reform seedbeds among other chores, Bradley said.

“No-till is kind of like Alcoholics Anonymous. When you want to go out and disk (plow) a field, you need to have a buddy to call on the phone so you can ask him: ‘Do I really need to do this?’

“You might hear criticism because your fields aren't as pretty,” Bradley added. “But we need to redefine what a good-looking field is. Done correctly, with a positive attitude, this system works, and you won't lose any yield.”

This year, roughly 26 percent of 445,500 rice acres planted in Louisiana used a reduced-tillage system, the LSU AgCenter's Saichuk estimates.

That percentage was down slightly from about 30 percent a year earlier, and experts say the slip came as a result of a wet fall in 2002 and heavy rain that made it hard for farmers get in their fields last October or November to attack weed problems and prepare seedbeds.

Saichuk also said most Louisiana farmers use a reduced-tillage method rather than a strict no-till approach.

“The idea is to never let your weeds get too big,” he said. “Folks in other parts of the country have trouble understanding how quickly natural vegetation comes back for us down here with our climate.”

Randy McClain (225-578-2263 or writes for the LSU AgCenter.

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