Cousins Ryan and Gavin Sullivan, the fifth generation of Sullivans to farm on land in Mississippi County, Ark., are switching things up a bit as they grow row rice and soybeans – releveling fields, pulling up beds and using ultra sonic-waves to measure moisture levels.
Gavin manages the soybean side of the operation while Ryan manages rice. Operating as Sullivan Family Ag alongside their dads, brothers Mike and Scott, they manage close to 18,000 acres. Much of that land is on heavy soils, which makes it difficult to grow much more than rice, soybeans or corn, said Ryan's dad, Mike Sullivan.
Mike said the story of their farm is really about transformation – taking former swampland along the Mississippi River and turning it into productive farmland. The next generation of Sullivans is taking the transformation one step further.
In 1980 a historical drought — two months of 100-degree weather with no rain — devastated production on all but about 80 acres of the Sullivan's precision leveled land with irrigation.
Mike said that was the beginning of their use of laser leveling and center pivot irrigation, taking the farm from only 80 acres of irrigated land to 100%. The fields were 100% level to grade.
"Precision leveling has made what people used to call sorry land - with no irrigation or precision leveling – all of a sudden, over the last 37 years, much more valuable," Mike Sullivan said.
It worked well for the Sullivans, but a little over five years ago Mike and Ryan attended the Natural Resources Conservation Service Cotton and Rice Conference and heard of growers in Missouri growing row rice on the same kind of heavy ground as the Sullivan's.
"I'd always thought of row rice as something you did on a steep slope to eliminate 40 levees in one field," Ryan said.
"These guys in the Bootheel of Missouri were growing rice in leveled fields on 1% slope in heavy clay gumbo and the lightbulb just went off, hey, that can definitely work for us too," he said.
The main driver to go to row rice was to get away from the levees that destroy the precision groundwork and make it difficult to rotate in soybean or corn the following season. The row rice is part of a whole farm approach that considers the crop following the rice.
"We'd level the fields and then cut a gashing levee across it and then you never get it right," he said.
Working the heavy ground - disking, planting, harvesting, releveling, building levees – disrupts the soil causing ruts or clods that were not easily covered or destroyed. By eliminating trips across the field and thus soil disruption, planters can more easily cut seed bed into no or low till ground for the following crop. It also saves the expense of running those heavy equipment operations.
Initially, the ground is leveled with a 1-inch drop every 100 feet. When the ground is leveled, only occasional seasonal touchups are required for deep rutting or washouts.
Rice seed can then be drilled into 38-inch beds. Shallow irrigation furrows are then cut into the beds using RTK guidance technology and irrigated using poly-pipe. The furrow allows the water to flow evenly down the rows.
Water can be applied as needed with poly-pipe. Gate holes are place in the poly-pipe every 38 inches to ensure proper distribution.
"We don't use moisture probes," said Ryan. "By the time the sensor triggers, it's too late for the rice in these heavy gumbo soils."
Instead, they use 8-inch tubes that are installed vertically in the field. The underground water level is measured by using either an ultra-sonic reading at the tube or a float in the tube that can be seen from the edge of the field.
"You can see the float from your pickup truck," he said. "That's the best way for large scale adoption, because it's so simple. There's no technology to have to worry about."
This year they worked with researchers at USDA-ARS Delta Water Management Research Unit out of Jonesboro to set up an automated water management system on 160 acres. The automated system, once it was brought online, determined which field needed water and would send it to the plot that needed it within those 160 acres.
"The crazy thing about that is when it's all said and done, there wasn't much difference in water usage of the automated system and where we used manual timers," he said of the system that they were using to try and save water.
He also noted, "I'm 26 years old and ever since I've been old enough to help on the farm we've been trying to get more advanced technology, but it's almost like you get to a point - we have all these centers and automation – and then, whoa, let's just put a tube in the ground and look at the tube because that's the best thing that worked for us"
He intends to continue working with the research facility to improve efficiency.
With the 1% grade of the fields they are able to push the water through the rice as needed. At harvest they can get into the field earlier for harvest.
Ryan said that they have tried a number of varieties and have found that the newer hybrids work best for their operation.
"We have not had success with anything but a hybrid," said Ryan. "I've tried and tried the last four years in a row."
He said that he knows of a few growers in Missouri that have had some success with conventional rice varieties in rows, but not in his operation.
Ryan is happy with his rice yields and said that they have held up to the farm's 10-year yield average.
After harvest the rice stubble is knocked down and lightly tilled with a high-speed disc and then a Roll-A-Cone bedder is used to refresh the old beds. At that point it’s ready for next year's soybeans to be planted.
The Sullivans usually follow their rice with soybeans.
Ryan said that since they are able to get into the field earlier to plant in the spring, because they don't have to work up the soil, it benefits their production.
"The biggest advantage we are getting out of row rice is the following year's soybean crop – getting it in in a timely manner," Ryan said. We can get the soybean in early and save on labor without having to have that entire field crew working like we used to.
"Row rice has been working for us. I want to continue to learn this whole farm approach. What we are doing may not be the best fit for every farm in every area, but it’s another tool that is helping us on our farm."