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Rice keys: stewardship, rotation

When the mudfest of the 2009 Mid-South rice harvest was finally over, Cleveland, Miss., rice producer Nat McKnight breathed a sigh of relief.

“I was very fortunate. God blessed me,” said McKnight, who farms 1,100 acres of rice, 865 acres of corn and 1,700 acres of soybeans.

McKnight averaged very respectable yields for rice, corn and soybeans after a forgettable season in which conventional methods and wisdom pretty much had to be thrown out the window.

It started with a good bit of newly-acquired land needing major fieldwork to remove ruts. All during a very rainy spring, McKnight was nervous about finding an opportunity to get the ground worked up “because timeliness of planting is the key to being successful.”

Due to the delays, McKnight missed his traditional early window to get his rice planted, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because monsoon-like rains caused a lot of damage and replanting in many neighboring, early-planted fields.

McKnight completed rice planting on May 22, going with all Clearfield hybrids and varieties. Hybrids included 250 acres of CL XP746, 200 acres of CL XL745 and 250 acres of CL XL729.

One key to hybrid rice production, according to McKnight, is not to overseed. “Your plant population is the key. I keep it somewhere between 25 pounds and 28 pounds an acre.”

The hybrid rice technology does take some getting used to, however. “My farm manager, Brad Powell, says you can throw your hat out into the field and nine times out of 10, it’s going to land on a bare spot. But it’s amazing how much it compensates by the end of the season.”

The remainder was planted in Clearfield varieties, CL 151 and CL 131. He planted with a John Deere 1990 air seeder, “which does an excellent job and is very accurate.”

After emergence of Clearfield rice, McKnight sprayed with 4 ounces of Newpath. On some fields, Facet was added to the tank.

He applied 100 pounds of ammonium sulfate, 150 pounds of DAP and 100 pounds of potash, “which is a little more that what is recommended, but yield keeps me in the business and I’m trying to make as much as I can.”

June turned out to be the hottest and driest month of the year for the Mid-South in 2009, and McKnight’s pumps were running early and often. McKnight uses the side inlet irrigation method “to conserve as much water as we possibly can. We don’t want any water to run off. We are very fortunate to have the water supply we have in the Delta. But we all have to work at it.”

After flushing rice, or catching a rain, “We spray Clearpath at half-pound to the acre. That’s your Newpath and Facet, plus I’ll add up to a quart of Prowl H20. Depending on the hybrid or variety, I’ll put out 150 pounds of 41-0-0-4, then I’ll establish the flood slowly. Once the flood is established, I’ll put out another 125 pounds of 41-0-0-4. At 10 percent heading, we put out a 75 pound shot of nitrogen.”

He’ll change the protocol on CL151, putting out the 150 pounds of 41-0-0-4 pre-flood, then coming back with another 150 pounds when the flood is established, then applying a 75 pound shot of nitrogen at 10 percent heading.

McKnight has had some success with bumping nitrogen a bit on his CL131. “It’s a semi-dwarf and it will take more fertilizer than the rest of it and respond.”

The CL131 and CL151, as well as his RiceTec hybrids, receive an application of 17.5 ounces of Quilt before the last fertilizer shot. “I think I pick up the advantages of that application on the milling side.”

A shot of Karate goes out with one of the Newpath applications for rice water weevil. McKnight will then start scouting at heading for stink bugs, which are controlled with Karate. “Stink bugs can really do some damage, but we had a really light stink bug year in 2009.”

McKnight does all his own scouting, a skill he honed while working for nine years as a field representative for Jimmy Sanders, Inc., in Cleveland. He continued to farm 200 acres to 300 acres on the side while there, before eventually leaving to farm on his own full-time. McKnight says his experience at Sanders improved his knowledge base immensely. “That was like getting a Ph.D., in farming. Sanders Seed is and will continue to be a backbone of my operation.”

McKnight started out the harvest season with two John Deere 9770s “keeping our rotor speed as low as possible and taking our time.”

Patience was a virtue in one of the muddiest harvest seasons McKnight has ever experienced. “We would cut for a day, then it would rain for a day. I ended up having to buy a third combine just to get the crop out.”

Despite the troubles, yields were excellent. “Our 700 acres of hybrid rice averaged a little over 200 bushels an acre, the CL151 probably did 170 bushels to 175 bushels and the CL 131 did around 165 bushels.”

Last year’s rice ground will be rotated into soybeans in 2010, and the following year, most of that ground will rotate to conventional rice, and some will go into corn. “If we see some red rice in the conventional rice, we’ll try to rogue it ourselves. The next year, the ground will return to Clearfield rice.”

McKnight is very supportive of protecting the Clearfield weed control system through its stewardship program. “It’s a very simple weed control program. You can plant your rice and spray Newpath behind it. As soon as your rice comes up, you put out your next shot of Newpath out and you’re pretty much done.”

On the other hand, “if we don’t rotate this technology around like they want us to, we’re going to be in trouble. Everybody has to be aware. Roundup has been around for 10 years, but on our soybeans, we’re going back to conventional herbicide uses. We still get use from Roundup, but we do need to start using some of these older chemistries to break up some of these cycles.”

McKnight has enough storage on the farms to store his entire rice, soybean and corn crops, and has three trucks for transporting grain.

Helping out on the farm are McKnight’s two full-time hands, Lee Arthur and Horace Harris, in addition to his farm manager, Brad Powell. For the last few years, McKnight has brought in three Romanian agricultural workers through Ag Placement Services. “They pretty amazing guys. They’re here on an H2A work visa. They came in March and stay through December.

“My hat’s off to them. They’re coming 15,000 miles from their home to better their family. This is their third year, and they’re going to keep coming back as long we can keep the H2A program in place. It’s a good program that we need to protect. It’s hard to find people to put in the long hours on the farm. We consider them as part of the family. We keep in contact during the holidays when they are back with their families.”

One reason the three Romanians keep coming back is the strong sense of teamwork and family that McKnight fosters.

“I once read a quote from (entrepreneur and author) Anita Roddick that said, ‘I want a company and a job that values me as much as I value it. I want something in my life not just to invest my time in, but to believe in.’ I think that is a pretty neat quote to run my business. We are a team here, and I would not have it any other way.”

McKnight says the patience of his wife Robin is a big part of making the operation a success. “Farming is a tremendous challenge and I have a good wife to put up with the hours we put in. When we start planting, we go around the clock. She was raised with an ag background, so that helps. She has the ag spirit.

McKnight and Robin have twin sons Nathan Rhett and Rainey Reid, for whom Twin Ridge Farms is named. “They like telling anyone who will listen about their ‘their’ farm and ‘their’ trucks,” Robin said. “They wear Justin work boots just like their dad, and are eagerly looking forward to getting in the fields this year. They have the future farmers of America spirit.”

Robin is considered the farmland specialist in Partnership Properties, a real estate agency founded by Robin and three others. “Robin juggles the agency, the kids and me,” McKnight said.

“Robin has been real understanding of the fact that nobody has left me any money or land. Our job ethic is that we have to hit the ground running. If we’re going to make it, we have to put the time and effort in. If I don’t make it, it won’t be because of lack of effort. We’ll have been married for 10 years in July and she’s stuck with me.”


TAGS: Rice
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