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Mid-South's rice seed testing puts industry behind schedule

It is a certainty that in early March, if the weather is warm and dry, some Louisiana rice farmers will be planting a crop. Less certain, however, is what varieties will be available to them.

In an effort to scrub a LibertyLink trait from the rice supply, rice-growing states have mandated lab tests of seed. Many of the test results are still out.

“The rice farmers aren't sure what the seed dealers have and some dealers say they aren't sure what they're going to have,” says Johnny Saichuk, LSU AgCenter rice specialist.

“The results of those tests will obviously have a great deal of influence on what's planted.”

The seed situation had best come into quick focus, warns Saichuk. “The earliest farmers get in the field is early March — that's not when we recommend, but they'll be out there. We think the earliest planting shouldn't be done until mid-March. But if it warms up a little, the producers will get antsy and want to get in the field.”

In terms of seed supply adequacy, “this will force some farmers' hands. I've gotten a number of calls on alternative varieties, about what might fit in certain situations.”

Cheniere was recently joined by Clearfield 131 as the only varieties found to hold trace amounts of an LL trait. But while Cheniere has been banned from planting in 2007, CL131 has not.

“If the CL131 seed supply is reduced, that would be a major loss for Louisiana,” says Saichuk. “Cheniere made up 25 percent of our acreage. CL131 was responsible for another 25 percent, and both numbers would've increased in 2007 without the LL problem.”

In the best-case scenario, “Louisiana will still need to replace seed for at least 25 percent of acreage, probably more. We were expecting Cheniere to be on 335,000 acres all the way up to 400,000 acres. So not only do we have to make up that percentage, but the gross total.

“It'll be very interesting to see how we manage all this. I do think there's enough seed available, but growers will have to be very flexible.”

Right now, G&H Seed in Crowley, La., is proceeding with processing, sampling and testing rice seed.

“The state began sending samples for us in January, and we're getting results back,” says Michael Hensgens, G&H Seed vice president and business manager. Those results are coming back within the tolerances established by the (LL cleanup) plan.”

Like Saichuk, Hensgens expects a tight rice seed supply. “There won't be any excess seed, but the supply should be adequate for the 2007 crop.

“We haven't announced seed prices and probably won't until (the week of Feb. 5). We've been waiting for enough results from the seed tests to know our seed was okay for sale. Until that point, it wasn't (the right time) to name prices.”

Normally seed prices would have been established two months ago. The delay “has been caused by the regulatory process to assess supplies. Obviously, if demand exceeds supply, it would affect seed price.”

One plus: in some areas of Louisiana, rice producers can plant for three months. In other rice-growing areas, the crop goes in at one time.

“We have some of all varieties processed and ready for shipping now,” says Hensgens. “Actually, we're waiting for certified seed tags to come in from the state on our lots. We couldn't order those until the LL testing had been done.”

The testing cost of the cleanup process is a concern for seedsmen. But lab tests aren't the only extra expense. To catch up, some seed businesses have to run overtime.

“We're processing 16 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Hensgens. “We think we'll be processing a month into planting season. Farmers will be planting well before we finish processing.”

In northeast Arkansas, Wade Castleberry says the dearth of seed “has taken some farmers by surprise. They didn't anticipate the emergency regulation on Cheniere and the testing requirements on farmer-saved seed. I feel most of our customers will sell the saved seed stock to reduce risk. The testing plan is a burden; it is time-consuming. Many prefer putting the liability on the seed companies.”

Many farmers around Marmaduke, Ark., where Castleberry manages Delta Cotton Co-op, “have tried to make alternate arrangements or find seed (into the first week of February). They aren't finding what they want. The first choice just isn't there.”

Several growers have decided to go with corn.

“One farmer just said, ‘That's fine. I wanted to plant corn anyway,’” reports Castleberry. “So we have some acres switching to corn regardless of what rice seed comes available. Our rice acres will probably be down 15 to 20 percent. Corn acres will be up 25 to 30 percent.”

The situation is confusing for many farmers, says Castleberry.

“I keep hearing, ‘This has forced us to buy seed which we could have legally saved before without the burden of testing and liability. We have to pay a supplier, spend more money for it than we would have in the past. That's put us in a bigger hole starting out. And it's all due to someone else's mess-up.’”

As for a corn acreage bump, Delta Cotton began booking corn seed for growers early last fall.

“By now, we've gone through first, second, third and, probably, even fourth round picks. There's very little left.”

While demand for corn seed remains high, the soybean market has lately become more attractive, says Castleberry. “The head-over-heels push for corn that started a couple of months ago has calmed. Now, we're seeing a bigger move to soybeans because the corn varieties aren't available.”

While Chuck Wilson is hearing concerns about the Arkansas rice seed supply, the topic is much hotter in other states.

“We just didn't grow as much Cheniere as other states,” says the Arkansas Extension rice specialist. “There is concern about CL 131, though. If we were to lose 30 percent or 50 percent of that, added to the Cheniere loss, it would be a big chunk of the seed supply.”

What about alternative crops?

“We'll be planting more corn, no doubt. But most of that will be on cotton ground. There may be a little on rice ground.

“Almost everyone I speak with believes Arkansas will see a 4 percent or 5 percent drop in rice acres again in 2007. A lot will depend on what the market does between now and the first of March.”

The expected drop in rice acres “is a cost-of-production issue as much as anything. The market is pretty good, but corn prices are high and soybeans prices are coming on.”

Asked about advice he's offering Louisiana growers, Saichuk says there are a number of things they can consider. “But, again, it's hard to suggest something because we don't know what the seed supply will be like.”

One rice variety getting attention is Trenasse, an early-maturing variety developed in Louisiana. Other varieties Saichuk points to:

  • Banks

    “I've also suggested Banks, out of Arkansas, because it's done well in our trials.

  • Wells

    “We may have to go back to more traditional rice like Wells. We haven't had very many acres of Wells but we could bring it in.”

  • Cypress

    “Where it fits, Cypress is a great quality variety.”

  • Clearfield 161

    “This one is at the top of the list for some folks.”

  • Hybrids

    “I believe every grain of the hybrids sold. The same is probably true for every Clearfield variety with the possible exception of 131.”

Louisiana producers are also considering medium-grain rice.

“There's been some talk about Bengal,” says Saichuk. “There have been a number of contracts offered already for Bengal. Anyone considering that variety should factor in fungicide costs.

Regardless, the seed dealers want to supply “good, quality seed and we trust them to do that,” says Saichuk. “In the meantime, farmers need to make plans for alternative varieties or, if necessary, an alternative crop. Soybeans will go in where they'll work and in north Louisiana we'll see a spike in corn acreage.”

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