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Reducing production costs when California rice economy healthy

Three years of drought are creating an economic dilemma for some Northern California rice farmers.

Reports of 2009 water sale prices of more than $1,000 per acre foot would cause any farmer and his irrigation district to ponder — grow rice or sell water to thirsty Central and Southern California buyers?

Even at stratospheric prices like $1,000 per acre foot, water buyers need not knock on the door of Sacramento Valley rice farmer John Thompson and his son J.T., where a ‘No Solicitors’ sign hangs on the farm gate.

They are rice growers; not water marketers. It’s too risky to be the latter.

Besides, they’ve already spent considerable cash on their 2009 rice crop, at least two months before the first seed germinates in their 1,400 acres of rice situated on either side of the Butte-Glenn county line. (The center strip down the road in front of their farm headquarters is literally the dividing line between the two counties.)

“We bought planting prevention crop insurance for the first time,” says J.T., the third generation of Thompsons to farm rice.

Crop failure is at best a remote possibility, but with almost unprecedented rice prices for the second year in a row and lingering doubts about water delivery, John and his son said it made sense to ensure against getting the crop in the ground and up.

The Thompsons, members of the Butte County Rice Growers Association where J.T. is a director, can sell one-third of their 2009 crop today at $19 over loan ($6.52 per cwt). They still have 2008 crop to sell at $23 over loan.

If it gets seeded, the Thompsons are almost certain to get a decent crop. “A total crop failure is so remote. You may get 100 sacks one year; 80 the next. However, in the 25 years I have been farming with my dad, I have seen only one year you could call a crop failure where we lost 40 percent of a crop due to cold weather,” says J.T.

Prices have fallen from record 2008 levels. However, as the Thompsons point out, the world population continues to grow and right along with it is the demand for California rice.

While there have been articles of late bemoaning the fall of rice prices this year, the Philippines-based Rice Research Institute has warned rice prices could rise sharply, causing another shortage of the staple grain.

According to an article in BBC World Service, the institute’s Sam Mohanty stated, “We don’t have a lot of buffers. We really need to produce another record rice crop to survive.”

There are concerns this year’s world harvest may not live up to expectations because of poor weather and a lack of the credit that farmers need to buy fertilizer.

The Thai Rice Exporters Association has increased the price of its benchmark white rice by 3 percent in the past week. It is the fourth consecutive week of increases.

“We keep reading that there seems to be a rice shortage worldwide and demand is good,” John says.

“I can now grow price for a decent profit. That is what I like to do and I see no need to contemplate selling water,” says J.T.

And as John notes, the drought has affected rice growers just like it has everyone else in the state. There is no surplus of water to sell. “I expect to get only 75 percent of our surface water allocation. Lake Oroville is still very low. But we have a couple of wells and should be OK this year,” he adds. Any water sale could short the Thompson crop the father and son expect to be profitable.

The elder Thompson admits that as water sale prices escalate, there may be small growers who would rather sell than farm.

“Last year water buyers were snooping around with $600 per acre. This year they started at $800 and there is some talk of up to $1,200 this year,” says J.T. “But we are not interested. We think we can make just as much money growing rice as we can selling water.”

Even if a Northern California water district or farmer sold water for use down south, there is no guarantee it would get through the California Delta, the only water route from Northern to Southern California, J.T. points out.

“With all the environmental and fish legal issues now, you might sell your water; not get it through the Delta and wind up too late to plant rice using the water you sold but could not deliver,” notes John.

“The marketing people are saying at the rice price we are seeing, plant everything you can wall to wall,” the senior Thompson says.

This is the Thompsons’ plan.

John and J.T. like dry planting compared to wet seeding. They think it is cheaper and it has become more palatable with the new use of an old herbicide, pendimethalin, the active ingredient in the well-known herbicide Prowl.

The new use is branded Harbinger, which is pendimethalin formulated with an adhesive that holds the herbicide on the surface, allowing the rice to germinate safely, according to Dave Sills, rice specialist with Crop Production Services (formerly Western Farm Service). Sills holds the patent on the process.

“It is the first true pre-emergence herbicide for rice,” said Sills.

It is used in rice seeded dry by air or drilled dry then followed by a quick water flush, says Sills. “The flush is a saturation process that germinates rice and activates the Harbinger. Water should not remain over the top of Harbinger for more than seven days,” he adds.

Once rice has emerged, the field is flooded for the remainder of the season.

Sills said field preparation where Harbinger is applied is no different with dry seeded or wet seeded. Fertility practices are no different, either, although the Thompsons believe weed control in a dry seeded environment may save nitrogen.

Whether drill or flying on dry seeds, Sills says it is critical not to plant too deep, not below an inch. Usually a half inch to 1 inch is recommended. “Seed that is incorporated beyond 1.5 inches will likely not survive,” Sills warns.

If seed is flown on as the Thompsons did for the first time last year, it must be “lightly incorporated,” according to Sills.

Last year the Thompsons contracted for the flown field to be rolled with a larger, water-weighted 24-foot wide cleated roller to incorporate the seed as well as apply starter fertilizer.

“What I tell growers is that roll in the flown seed, there should be only 15 percent to 20 percent of the seed visible on the surface,” he says, explaining this ensures the majority of the seed incorporated is not too deep. Most of the seed on the surface will be stunted, but not killed by the herbicide.

While the Thompsons contracted for the use of the large drum roller, Sills says the same thing can be accomplished with a ring roller, light harrow, closed disk or other implements that achieve shallow seed mixing and incorporation.

“The contractor we used applied starter fertilizer (10-10-5) right behind the rice roller last year,” J.T. explains. “He did it cheaper than we could.”

Starter fertilizer is also applied behind a dry-seeding drill.

Although Thompsons seeded at a rate of 180 pounds per acre, Sills adds that some growers who have flown on dry seed have used the same seeding rate as water-flown seed.

Preparation for this year’s crop began last year when the Thompsons harvested with a stripper header, leaving stalks standing. If the Thompsons can burn 25 percent of their fields under reduced burning rules, they will. Otherwise, straw will be chopped and chiseled in one pass before winter flooding to incorporate residue.

It will stay flooded until the end of February under the artificial wetlands program. This attracts millions of waterfowl to the Sacramento Valley.

Fields are drained at the end of February to dry out in preparation for seeding.

The Thompsons chisel one more time and disk, and they are ready to plant.

“We have been drill seeding for 20 years. Last year was the first to fly on dry seed and incorporate it,” Johns says.

“The beauty of dry seeding is that you do not have to call in a steel wheel rig to apply herbicide,” he said. This can leave deep ruts in a field.

Dry seeding also eliminates the need to soak seed in bleach for water seeding. Researchers have discovered that this is the only proven way to a deadly pathogen called bakanae. According to Sills, 7.5 million gallons of bleach are used to soak seed annually. Widespread dry seeding could reduce that significantly.

“It is also far cheaper to truck dry seed than wet seed,” J.T. added.

Once the seed is incorporated and Harbinger applied at a rate of 2 quarts per acre in a spray volume of 10 to 20 gallons of water per acre, the field gets quick flushing — not flooding. When the crop emerges, fields are the flooded for the remainder of the growing season with maybe one or two nitrogen topdressings.

Dry seeding has reduced herbicide cost for the Thompsons by about 50 percent. Sills tells people the pre-emergence, dry seeding culture can reduce growing costs by $75 to $100 per acre. It also reduces water use by 15 percent to 20 percent. Sills adds that by not water seeding, insects like tadpole shrimp and water weevil do not represent as much of a threat because the field is not flooded ahead of seeding.

Last year Harbinger was the only herbicide applied to the Thompsons’ flown, dry-seeded fields. “The Thompsons represent about only about 10 percent of the dry-seeded growers who got away with one herbicide,” say Sills.

“Ninety percent had to come back with another post-emergence herbicide because Harbinger misses deep-seeded watergrass,” he adds.

“Pendimethlin is a great product. We have used it for years in tank mixes with something else. Using it alone like we did last year adds a new, more economical dimension to it,” says J.T.

Harbinger enables California rice growers to “rotate cultural practices” in a historically water-seeded culture, according to Sills. This dry seeding with pendimethalin represents another tool in the escalating war against herbicide resistance in weeds.

“We are changing the weed stimulus environment” rather than changing herbicides, explains Sills.

“I would like to see half the rice acreage dry seeded to shuffle the deck, so we can use what herbicide we now have longer,” he suggests.

Dry seeding will not work everywhere. “We understand that on soils that are very heavy, dry seeding may not work. Our soils are not quite as heavy as some other rice ground,” John says.

J.T. adds that he believes yields are actually more consistent with dry seeding than wet seeding where herbicides often require water to be moved in and out of a field. The Thompsons noticed a yield difference — about 20 sacks — from one particular area of a field to another where a water herbicide was used.

“We could not figure out what was different. The only thing we came up with is that we put on a herbicide and had to drain the field. I think we lost some N in doing that,” J. T. says.

The Thompsons also water seed as well as dry seed.

M-205 is the variety of choice for the Thompsons because they believe it provides more consistent yields. They have tried specialty rice, but prefer the medium grains. Medium grain represents about 90 percent of the production in the Sacramento Valley.

They want a stand by May 15-20, and hope to have the crop in the barn by Nov. 1.

“If you are eating Thanksgiving leftovers in the cab of the harvester, you are very late,” he says.

The Thompsons use a stripper header for faster harvest; 5 miles per hour versus 2 mph with a conventional header.

Sills and the Thompsons do not call Harbinger a silver bullet, but it does represent a different way of growing rice for less money in certain situations and helps ward off herbicide resistance.

“The rice industry is pretty healthy right now and there will be people who say ‘why change?’ to something like this dry seeding using pendimethalin,” admits John. However, he also believes any time you can get good yields and save money by doing something different — in good times or bad — it makes sense to do it.”


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