It hasn't always been smooth sailing, but Gary Sitzer has ridden the Clearfield wave from the start. As the seasons have passed, the waters have calmed.
The reason he was an early adopter of the technology is simple. “A farm we rent had been in a heavy rice rotation,” said the Weiner, Ark.-area producer. “Over the years, the red rice population had built and become a real problem. We needed a solution.”
Fortunately, in 2001 — the first year Sitzer rented the farm — Clearfield came out on a trial basis. “Some 10 farms around here each had up to 150 acres of it — so there was about 1,500 acres total in this area.”
That first year, the only variety available was Clearfield 121.
“Since it was a trial and the technology was just getting off the ground, by the time we got the seed it was a little later than we normally plant. We learned quickly that 121 didn't like being planted later.”
The new technology and variety was a “hard education” for Sitzer. Even so, he achieved 95 to 98 percent red rice control.
“The red rice control was really good. However, the field yields weren't what we wanted. Yields were well below other varieties.”
The company supplying the seed felt the yield lag was due to the late planting.
“They'd gotten the seed to me late. So they gave us a little break the following year to help compensate.”
In Clearfield's sophomore season more seed was available and Sitzer moved Clearfield 121 to another, larger field. He saw almost total red rice control. But a chink in Clearfield's armor showed up.
“Some of our fields have extremely heavy sprangletop infestation. I think that weed basically overwhelmed Newpath — the herbicide used with Clearfield. Even if we were getting 90 percent control out of Newpath, there was a lot of sprangletop left.”
Sitzer had to resort to other control measures behind Newpath.
“Outside extreme pressure, Newpath does fine. But it can need help if the weed pressure is intense.”
Regardless, yields picked up. Sitzer gained almost 40 bushels from the previous year.
“That extra 40 got us pretty close to our norm. The yield wasn't as good as our best fields, but it was solid.”
Much of the area around Weiner is on a 50/50 rice/soybean rotation. In 2003, the field Sitzer had first used Clearfield on came back into rice.
“Clearfield 161 and hybrids — XL8CL — came out that year. So we took the original field and planted about 30 acres in XL8CL and the balance in 161.”
Again, the producer got great red rice control — almost 100 percent. But while sprangletop wasn't a problem (because another herbicide was added to the mix), weather was.
“That year was almost the exact opposite of this season. It was incredibly wet. The bottomland ground on the farm was under a deep flood for a long time.”
The hybrid — planted in the lowest part of the field — took the brunt of the flood. Even so, it yielded the same as the Clearfield 161.
“It was remarkable that it was capable of that.”
How did the 161 yields compare to the 121 earlier?
“If you do everything right, 161 and 121 will yield about the same. But the 161 is much more consistent and there's more room for error.
“The biggest advantage of 161 over 121 is the milling yield. For that reason, it pretty much took out the 121. There's not much 121 around — especially with the new 131 out now.”
In 2004, Sitzer's original Clearfield acreage was again in Roundup Ready soybeans. This year, the field rotated into a conventional rice: Wells.
“Unfortunately, there's still some red rice out there. But it's now at a manageable level that won't affect yield or quality. Even if you get 100 percent control, if you're starting with a huge seed bank — even after a five-year rotation — it's probably too much to ask for absolutely no red rice. There's just too much seed in the soil.”
Sitzer is looking to “stay even with red rice. On a conventional rice/Roundup Ready bean rotation, we want to be able to hang with the red rice. Using Clearfield can help us get there. In most of our fields, red rice doesn't get unmanageable unless we make a big mistake somewhere. In 2007, the consideration will be whether or not to come back with Clearfield in this field again.”
In 2001, word quickly circulated among farmers that 121 didn't yield well. For many producers, that fact alone dissolved interest. “That was a bad sign to a bunch of folks,” said Sitzer. “To overcome that lesser yield, red rice had to be severe. Most of the area producers with 121 that first year planted late and made 100 to 120 bushels. We're normally 160 bushels dry, or higher.”
Sitzer admits he too hesitated but “went with the test data and hoped, as the company was claiming, it was just late planting that knocked it back.”
After 2002, when 121 yields proved decent, “we'd figured the crop out a little more and interest picked up. By 2003, a bunch more producers were looking at planting it. The arrival of XL8CL and other hybrids brought even better yield potential. This technology has been out long enough that people trust it more.”
Rain or flush
After planting a Clearfield variety, it helps to catch a timely rain. Newpath, like other herbicides, is very water-sensitive.
“Once you commit to the program — as much as rice farmers hate to flush — you're more likely to flush Newpath. It's easier to flip the pump switch when you're looking at triple benefits: one flush can get the crop up, activate the herbicide and deal with your red rice. But you must get that first shot of water across the field. It's imperative because if you don't, it's very hard to catch up.”
Sitzer believes incorporating the first shot of Newpath may relieve a bit of pressure. “By incorporating, I believe I'm gaining at least a couple of days. If there's any moisture in the ground when you incorporate (Newpath) it has to help. At least it's not lying on the soil surface doing nothing until water hits it. Of course, that won't work if you're no-tilling rice.”
Handling a dry year
How did Sitzer handle the rice crop in this year's dry conditions?
“It's been absolutely horrible keeping rice pumped up. My employees have worked themselves to death trying to keep up.”
On one farm Sitzer rents, water comes from a reservoir. Normally, the water supply is ample.
“This year, using all surface water, the reservoir started dropping. We hit a point at the end of June where we started doing the math. The numbers said there wouldn't be enough water to finish the crop out.”
From the Clearfield side exclusively, “we were very fortunate that we planted early enough that we actually caught some rains to activate the Newpath. We were able to keep it flooded and never had any rice that was overly stressed. However, it's been a constant fight with irrigation. We even had to go back to some ground water sources we haven't used in years. A little rain in early July basically saved our season.”