Rice breeders and technology providers aren't letting an industry financial crisis get them down. In fact, they're pushing harder than ever before to find new rice lines that could add dollars to farmers' pockets.
For example, rice varieties currently being developed are more cold-tolerant to allow earlier planting in the spring, according to Karen Moldenhauer, plant breeder with the University of Arkansas.
A cold-tolerant variety “could also be important for water conservation,” Moldenhauer said.
“If varieties are planted earlier and start growing off earlier, we can make use of spring rains in the flood waters.”
Moldenhauer noted that a rice variety recently acquired from a breeding program in Hungary is an earlier-maturing variety with some cold-tolerance potential. “It may allow us to conserve more water by giving us varieties that mature within 90 to 100 days.
Moldenhauer and plant breeder Steve Linscombe discussed rice developments in the breeding pipeline at a special session of the USA Rice Outlook Conference in Little Rock.
Moldenhauer said there is also a need for a wider range of disease resistance in future varieties. “We need to look for different sources of resistance, so everything doesn't become susceptible at once. So we need to keep increasing genetic diversity.”
Increasing grain length “has also been brought to our attention over the last two years,” she said. “The European market and other markets want a 7.2 millimeter kernel. We don't have anything quite that long. But it's something we can work on.
“We also have to start thinking about specialty rices and nutraceuticals,” Moldenhauer said. “We want to stay innovative. But we need to know what the industry wants and needs.”
An indication of how growers respond to breeding advancements was the significant swing from medium grain to long grain varieties in Louisiana, noted Linscombe, plant breeder with the LSU AgCenter's Rice Research Station.
In 1982, 35 percent of Louisiana rice acreage was planted to long grain varieties and 65 percent to medium grain. Then along came Lemont, the first high-yielding, semi-dwarf variety, and the first long grain that could compete with Louisiana medium grains.
By 1995, 65 percent of Louisiana acreage was planted to long grain with 35 percent seeded to medium grain varieties. In 2002, 98 percent of the state's acreage was devoted to long grain with only 2 percent in medium grain.
“We've seen more and more of this trend toward long grain varieties with very good yield potential,” Linscombe said. “The plant type that we want to maintain is represented by Cocodrie — a semi-dwarf with a fairly high amount of lodging resistance and large tiller number.”
Linscombe doesn't think this trend is going to change in the short term. “However, I think we still have a lot of potential for medium grain varieties in the South. So we still have 30 percent of our breeding program at Crowley devoted to developing superior medium grain varieties.”
In future rice varieties, Linscombe hopes to combine the best characteristics of Arkansas rice lines like Francis and Wells, which have fewer tillers, but a lot more grains per panicle, with the Cypress and Cocodrie types of Louisiana, which have more tillers, but smaller panicles. “Hopefully, we can make some substantial yield improvement with this combination.”
Linscombe and other breeders have also put time and effort into developing “unconventional” rice varieties, such as Clearfield CL 161 and Liberty Link lines. “The Clearfield technology has an advantage in the current climate because it is not a GMO. But the Liberty Link technology is something that we will have to look at very closely in the future.”
Rice varieties/hybrids with excellent potential for Louisiana include:
Francis. The recent release from Arkansas “has done very well in our yield testing program,” Linscombe said.
Clearfield CL 161. The line is a direct induced-mutant selected from Cypress. “This technology will be very important for us, with the ability to control red rice and especially with the new label changes (which allow for two post applications of Newpath on CL 161). (See story on facing page.)
“The variety performs very similar to Cypress in most agronomic aspects,” Linscombe said. “A big plus for this line is that it has enhanced resistance to Newpath compared to CL 121 and CL 141. It is susceptible to sheath blight, moderately susceptible to blast and has good resistance to straighthead.”
LA 2174. This new release is a true semi-dwarf with very good straw strength. “It will stand up a little better than Cypress and maybe even a little bit better than Cocodrie. Yield potential is good, comparable and maybe a little better than Cocodrie. It has good milling quality. It's moderately susceptible to blast and sheath blight and is resistant to straighthead.”
RiceTec XL-7 and XL-8. The rice hybrids “have performed very well in our tests this year and last year,” Linscombe said. “The newer generations of hybrids coming out of the RiceTec program are going to have a place in the rice industry in the South.”
LA 2134. A new short grain variety with very high-yield potential and good milling yield. “It does have some chalk problems which we are working on. We have not typically grown short grain rice in Louisiana, but a couple of our rice mills have developed some new markets for short grain rice. “
Transgenics. While controversial, “the use of this technology to incorporate genes through genetic manipulation is going to be critical to the survival of this industry,” Linscombe said. “It's going to allow us to deliver the traits that the industry demands much more easily in a much more expedited manner.
“I realize this is something that can be used against us in the export market. But there is so much potential. The worst thing that we can do is say that we're not going to accept it.”
Linscombe noted that the Rice Research Station is working on a new rice variety which contains a gene for a corn plant. “There are some indications that by adding this gene, we can actually increase the yield potential of our varieties without causing any other changes. This particular variety will probably never be commercialized. But these are the types of things we are going to start thinking about in the future.”
Along that line, “public breeding programs need to develop relationships with industry, whether it's gene manipulation companies or chemical companies,” Linscombe said.