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Furrow-irrigated rice may save more than dollars and cents

Mike Sullivan and a field of row rice near Burdette, Arkansas in 2016
Mike Sullivan with one of the fields of furrow-irrigated rice he and his son, Ryan, grew on Florenden Farms near Burdette, Ark. in 2016.
Father-son team finding row rice can save on wear and tear on equipment, rice producers.

For some rice farmers, the decision to try furrow-irrigated rice may come down to a question of water availability or expense. For Arkansas producers Mike and Ryan Sullivan, the issue was trips across the field.

That figures into expenses, as well, but it can also result in a lot of wear and tear on producers and their employees – the challenge of having to do something over and over again with no reasonable expectation of it getting easier.

That was one of the primary factors in Ryan Sullivan’s decision to try furrow-irrigated or row rice after hearing Louisiana rice producer Wendell Minson discuss the concept during a presentation at the National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference in Baton Rouge, La., in 2015.

“Levee gates, levees and all that manual labor is one of the struggles we have on our farm,” says Ryan, who operates Florenden Farms with his father, Mike Sullivan, near Burdette in northeast Arkansas. Ryan Sullivan joined the operation after graduating from Arkansas State University in 2015.

The Sullivans rotate rice with soybeans on the 13,000 acres they farm in the northeast Arkansas Delta near Burdette. That creates a cycle of building up the 38-inch beds for twin-row soybeans, tearing them down, constructing levees for rice, smoothing out the ruts after rice harvest and building the beds again.

Build levee – repeat

“There’s not very much rice behind rice so every year we were having to do all this field work,” he said. “It was just a tradition that when you cut the rice you had to knock the levees down; you had to work the ruts out and do all the things you had to do to get the land ready for next year.

“When I heard Wendell speak about furrow-irrigated rice, it just clicked that maybe we could grow rice without all that field work,” said Ryan, who was a speaker at the 2017 National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference.

The younger Sullivan included a video shot from an unmanned aerial vehicle or drone showing one of the 80-acre fields where the Sullivans grew row rice in 2016. (To watch the video, click on

The ease of transitioning from one year to the next may be the biggest advantage for row rice on Florenden Farms.

“The way that it fits into our system is the last trip before that drill (to plant the row rice) there was the combine cutting the beans,” he said, referring to a photo of a tractor pulling a grain drill to plant rice across a field of 38-inch beds.

Two trips saved and more

“In the field beside it, our comparison field, after we cut the beans, we ran a scratcher, a field cultivator, and a Kelly Diamond to smooth it out behind that to get it ready to plant rice. So that’s already two trips we saved on this row rice field.”

Then there’s building the levees after the rice is drilled. “In our kind of dirt, you can’t put up a good strong levee with less than five trips (with a levee plow). It’s just gumbo clods, and it takes that many times to get a good levee built. That’s a big deal for us in that you’re not having to do all those trips across the field when you’re putting up levees. There’s also no more harvesting in the mud.”

Eliminating the levee gates in conventionally planted and flooded rice also reduces the amount of manual labor.

Sullivan settled on drilling the rice at an angle to the rows to help with the down pressure on the drill, which, in turn, helps provide better coverage of the seed. “It probably depends on the soil, but this worked better for us.”

The father and son use the Delta Plastic Pipe Planner software program on all their fields, including the row rice. They punched a hole for each 38-inch row middle in the furrow-irrigated rice to make sure they put out enough water. (They water ever other middle in the soybeans planted on the 38-inch beds.)

Pushing water to the end

“We were able to put a deep enough flood on the young rice on that .10-of-an-inch slope with the furrow system,” he said. “The water covered all but the top 25 percent.”

As they do on most of their rice, the Sullivans applied a standard rate of Roundup and 16 ounces of Command behind the grain drill on their row rice fields. Because of cold temperatures and the slow emergence of the rice, a week later they applied two ounces of Sharpen.

“That was to try to hold the pigweeds back,” he noted. “That’s what we put out before the rice came up. Then we came back with half a pound of Facet and another 8 ounces of Command before we applied the flood.” (To learn more about herbicides in row rice, click on

Rice growers usually don’t worry about Palmer amaranth in their rice bays because the pigweed won’t come up in the flood water.  “In a traditional environment, you just flood them out – that’s what I’ve always been taught.”

The situation is different in row rice, and Sullivan is hopeful researchers like Bob Scott, University of Arkansas Extension weed scientist who appeared on the program with him at the National Conservation Systems Conference, can provide some answers about controlling Palmer amaranth in a low-flood environment.

Heaven for pigweeds

“The top end of the field in row rice is just staying muddy,” he said, showing a photo of an 18-inch pigweed that put out new roots after it was pulled up in the field. “So you can’t flood them out. This environment is heaven for them.”

The Sullivans received a five-inch rain after they applied the 2 ounces of Sharpen pre-emergence “so I’m not sure how much activity we actually received from that application.”

Sullivan said he applied slightly more water (40 acre inches compared to 36 acre inches) and made one more herbicide application (the 2 ounces of Sharpen) in the furrow-irrigated rice vs. the comparison field (in which he used alternate wetting and drying).

Nevertheless, the furrow-irrigated rice had lower costs ($336.14 an acre compared to $369.70 an acre for the more conventional rice) and produced more revenue ($635.00 an acre vs. $609.30 an acre) than the alternate wetting and drying field they compared with the row rice.

“We did not get much assistance from rainfall in this first year of row rice,” he said. “That figure for irrigation water (40 acre inches) might seem alarming, but more normal rainfall conditions probably would help offset the water usage.

“And I think might have used too much water. We applied the water each time it started looking dry,” he said. “We had soil moister meters in the research projects on our farm, but we didn’t use them this first year. I think we can use less water with closer management of the furrow-irrigated vs. flood-irrigated rice.”

For more on the costs of furrow-irrigated rice, click on


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