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Rice producer limits farm size, manages smarter

GILLETT, Ark. -- Get bigger, or get smarter. That’s the dilemma many rice producers face in the wake of rising fuel and fertility costs. Rice producer Wayne Sexton prefers to get smarter.

“I’m kind of the last of the Mohicans, a small farmer,” Sexton said. “I started farming 130 acres, got up to 320 acres, then 800 acres. Everybody was saying get a little bigger. But how big do you have to get? Are we going end up with two farmers, one in the north half of the state and the other in the south half?”

All joking aside, the rice producer is always looking for ways to farm his rice acreage more efficiently. He’s keying on some benefits provided by hybrid rice, taking advantage of the ratooning potential of his crop and row-watering some of his hilly rice ground.

Sexton’s first experience with hybrid rice came in 2004, when he planted about 135 acres. He doubled acreage the following year. The first year, “we had excellent yields on our RiceTec XL8, 223 pounds, green. Then we flooded it back, put 100 pounds of urea on it, came back and cut another 77 bushels off it on Nov. 9.”

At these latitudes, a ratoon crop is a little risky, but the hybrid gives a small edge to Sexton, who also raises soybeans and wheat. “Seems to me the hybrid comes off a little earlier. We planted all our rice around April 1, but we cut the hybrid three to four days earlier. The earlier it comes off, the better chance you have of a second crop.”

Another smart move for Sexton was going to row-watered rice on his hilly ground, which allowed him to put a hybrid — with its higher yield potential — on the field. “Row rice really fits in well with my operation. I have nine small fields totaling 170 acres, ranging in size from 6 acres to 32 acres. I catch my own water in a reservoir and pump it right onto the field.

“Where I put the row rice, I have a pretty good slope. I have one 15-acre field that normally would have 25 levees in it. If I were planting the hybrid seed on that ground, I really couldn’t afford to seed the levees. But if it’s on beds, I plant it just one time and do away with the levees. Any field that I can plant soybeans on and water down the row, I can do the same with rice.”

He also eliminates a surveying bill, labor and costs associated with gates and levees. “On these hillsides, I mow it, burn it and drill wheat into it. So I’m able to save some field work, too. I won’t do row rice on my flatter fields, just the smaller fields with a lot of slope, fields people normally don’t like to put rice in.”

About 270 of Sexton’s acres are planted in RiceTec hybrids, including XP723 and CLXP730. CLXL8 is planted on his heavier red rice fields, while the varietal rice Cheniere is planted on the remaining acreage. Two of his row rice fields are planted to Cheniere.

Sexton will put out 300 pounds of 0-26-26 preplant on both varietal and hybrid rice. “As soon as we plant, we hit it with Command.” He plants with a Great Plains drill at a plant population of 29 pounds per acre for hybrids and about 80 pounds for varietal rice.

He made two post applications of Newpath on his CLXL8 and cleaned up the field. “I had a few escapes along the outside levee, but the red rice was still green when I cut the field. On everything else, on the first flush, we put out Duet, Facet and Permit. That’s all we had to do to it.”

On his first fertilizer shot, he put out 200 pounds of urea at flood. He followed that with 100 pounds at heading.

Sexton had a little down rice from high winds that spun off hurricanes in 2005, “but not a lot. The rice held up pretty well.”

After harvest, Sexton will evaluate fields for a possible second crop. “If it makes enough of a second crop, we’ll cut it. If not, we’ll roll it and water it up for the ducks. It depends on Mother Nature.”

Fertilizing the ratoon crop is a call made at the field. “In 2004, on one field we fertilized with 100 pounds of urea and made 77 bushels on the ratoon crop. I had another field, where we didn’t fertilize after the first cut and it made 44 bushels. All it had was a couple of shots of water. I was saving it for the ducks, but when it started looking good, I decided, ‘I better cut this.’”

Costs of hybrids versus varietal rice end up being about the same, according to Sexton, even with the higher seed costs for the hybrids. “I didn’t put any fungicide on the hybrid rice, and I did on my varietal rice, so that’s $30 an acre saved. That’s what makes the hybrid economical.”

Sexton was very happy with yields in both his hybrid and varietal rice in 2004. “I made my best rice yield ever on CLXL8 in 2004 on a 66-acre field. That was a good year for rice and soybean yields. In 2005, it’s been a lot different. We had cold weather, it was rainy, then it dried up.”

The 2005 harvest didn’t go as well either. His best-yielding rice field in 2005 was the first one he cut, which came in at 187.2 bushels dry. His row rice cut an average of around 200 bushels, green. “I was a little late getting around to the rest of it. I had some hybrids yield in the high 170s, green. The Cheniere didn’t hit in our area last year. I averaged around 150 bushels, green.”

It was also a high production cost year for Sexton, which included fertilizer prices rising from $200 a ton to $320 a ton in the span of a few months. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in 2006 with diesel and fertilizer prices. A lot of farmers in our area ran out of money last year. It’s going to be tough. We need some good rice prices.”

Keeping his operation running efficiently with hybrids, row rice and the occasional ratoon crop is helping Sexton keep the bottom line in the black. In addition, his wife, Pat brings in additional income from her job as a jewelry salesperson in nearby Pine Bluff, Ark.

Sexton is cutting back to 300 acres of rice in 2006, shifting some of the acres to soybeans. He’s worried because fertilizer and nitrogen prices are still relatively high. But he’ll catch a break if 2006 is a dry season. “Most of my landlords pay for the water. If I did, it would be a different story.”


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