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Water is limiting factor for south Texas rice

Cliff Mock
Cliff Mock, left, farmer and crop consultant from Alvin, Texas, chats with Mo Way, Texas A&M entomologist at the AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Beaumont, following their presentations at the Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice conference in Memphis.
South Texas rice production competes for water with business, metropolitan uses.

Texas rice production has not approached base acreage—600,000 acres—for many years, with typical plantings running around 160,000 acres, says farmer and crop consultant Cliff Mock, Alvin, Texas.

Competition for water, Mock said during a presentation at the recent National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference in Memphis, is a limiting factor. “We have competition for irrigation and ground water,” he says. “Every day Texas requires 58 million more gallons of water for industry and metropolitan use.”

Water is also expensive, costing from $30 to $55 per acre.  He says a lot of producers in the south Texas rice production area are drilling wells to supplement or replace reliance on surface water that may be limited by upstream users, especially during drought. Subsidence districts, he says, dictate where, when and how landowners can drill wells.

Rice requires water, he says. “We need 1.5 to 2.5 acre feet of water to make a main crop of rice,” he explains. “We need another 1 to 1.5 acre feet to make a second (ratoon) crop.” Typical production practice for Texas rice is planting in late February or early March into a stale seedbed. “We expect emergence in 7 to 10 days, and 25 days until we flood. We may push flood date a bit to conserve water, and we like to delay flooding on hybrid rice. Hybrids can handle that and it seems to tiller a little better with a later flood.”

We plant mostly hybrid varieties, he says. “They have to be managed properly to do well.”

He adds that the ratoon crop is an important aspect of south Texas rice. “Our main crop Is not profitable at current prices. The ratoon crop is an advantage and growers place heavy emphasis on the second crop.”

He explains that the production costs for the main crop run to $1,000 per acre, “in and out. The ratoon crop production cost is $225 per acre, in and out.”

Growers expect 8,000 pounds per acre dry weight on the main crop with conventional varieties, 4,000 pounds on the ratoon crop. Production with hybrid varieties increases to 9,000 pounds from the main crop but remains at 4,000 from the ratoon production.

“Flooding is necessary for the ratoon crop to prevent volunteer rice,” Mock says. Producers may double up on fertility rates to make the second crop.

Conservation is Crucial

Mock says water conservation is a crucial issue with rice production, and water use monitoring is helping improve irrigation efficiency. A metering program, using a volumetric probe, helps producers assess water use. A probe is inserted into a pipe going to the field. “The probe reads the water going into the pipe and transmits the information to a website. After a 15-minute delay, growers can determine gallons per minute going into the fields.”

He says a Texas Water Development Board grant of $250,000 helps fund the metering program. “The probes cost $5,000 apiece.”

Estimates of water use before the metering program began have shown rice farmers using from five to six acre feet, assumptions that were way off.  “The meters are helping us know what we’re doing and helping us manage water better,” Mock says. “We can document it.”

He says the metering program started with only a few meters and was phased in. “Growers have accepted it well and find that the program helps them regulate and manage water use.”

Harvey Damage

He says the 2017 season brought different water problems. “Hurricane Harvey dropped 55 inches of rain,” he says. “We had a good crop going, but rice not already harvested was under water for an extended period of time.”

Mo Way, Texas A&M entomologist at the AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Beaumont, says 20 percent of the main crop remained in the field when Harvey hit. The ratoon crop was hit hard.

“It hammered our second crop,” Mock says. “We had nothing left to harvest where rice was under water.” Way says the hurricane dumped enough water on south Texas to fill Lake Tahoe.

Way adds that questions lingered for weeks after the storm regarding whether the crop could be marketed at all because of potential storm water contamination. “The FDA was concerned about contaminates in rice that went under water,” he says. “Potential for heavy metal, mycotoxin, pesticide, fuel and other pathogen contamination put marketing on hold,” he says.  

“The state chemist analyzed rice for contaminates. If not ‘adulterated’ rice could be harvested, stored and sold; mills would not accept adulterated rice. This created a lot of concern and delayed or terminated harvest.”

Organic production was in jeopardy because of widespread mosquito control sprays initiated to prevent Zika and West Nile Virus outbreaks. Producers were concerned that they lose organic certification. “Organic rice growers were eventually able to sell the crop,” Way says. And the land retained its organic certification.

Mock says rice producers are conscious of conservation and understand both the economic and environmental reasons to use water efficiently. Most producers are using conservation tillage methods. “Less than 5 percent of the area is now in conventional tillage,” he says. Typical practice includes a burndown herbicide treatment, a pre-emergence herbicide, fertilize and plant.  He adds that producers used to plant earlier but have delayed to conserve moisture.

He anticipates producers will increase rice acreage in 2018. “I don’t know how much, maybe 10 percent to 15 percent,” he says “Organic rice, however, will be down big.”


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