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Soaring costs push producer to innovate

STUTTGART, Ark. -- Increasing rice yields using less water and energy cost is the biggest challenge facing farmer Terry Dabbs these days. But he has some tools to help, including hybrid rice, reservoirs and a tailwater recovery system.

In addition, an experiment to irrigate rice planted on beds could be expanded if Dabbs can show a water conservation benefit. And Dabbs also had some success with a ratoon rice crop, which could be an option during certain years.

Cutting costs while preserving or even bumping rice yields is critical for Dabbs. Fuel costs have soared over the past year, creating higher energy costs for pumping water and running equipment.

Dabbs farms around 900 acres of rice with his son, Trent, and in partnership with his wife, Lori. About 60 percent of his rice is planted to hybrids, including 350 acres of RiceTec XP 723, 125 acres of XP 712, 20 acres of XP 728 and 80 acres of CL XL8. Varietal rice includes 150 acres of Wells, 75 acres of Francis, 40 acres of Banks and 110 acres of Cheniere.

Dabbs, who also farms wheat and soybeans, has had good success with hybrids over the past six years, with yields running 15 to 20 bushels above conventional varieties. “That and the hybrids’ disease package and not having to spray a foliar fungicide are enough to offset the additional costs of hybrid seed.”

Dabbs has continued to increase his percentage of hybrid rice every year and feels very comfortable with the technology. “I won’t go as far as to say I’ll be 100 percent hybrid rice in the future. But I can see myself at 75 percent to 80 percent. There will be a new variety rice coming out every year, and I’ll always try it to see what it will do. But I’ll be pretty heavy on the hybrids.”

The hybrids have also aided Dabbs in experiments with two innovative concepts to raise yields and cut costs on the farm — ratooning and furrow-irrigation.

In 2005, Dabbs furrow-irrigated two small rice fields, a 20-acre field and a 15-acre research plot for RiceTec, which had several RiceTec hybrids and three conventional varieties. Furrow-irrigated rice “is not going to work everywhere,” Dabbs stressed. “We picked fields with short rows, not over 1,200 feet long, so we could run water down them quickly.

“We bedded up, just like we bed cotton or beans, drilled the rice, laid rollout pipe across the end of the field and watered down the furrows. Our goal was just to keep the soil moist. Early in the season, we watered twice a week. In the summer, when it got really hot, we watered three times a week.”

At the end of a droughty 2005 season, the test plots of varietal and hybrid rice showed that the hybrids “were way ahead of the conventionals in yield. I’m not sure why. Maybe the hybrids have a little more drought tolerance built in. But hybrids definitely did a lot better with a smaller amount of water.”

On the other test field, planted to XP 723, Dabbs cut 194 bushels, dry. “I was tickled to death. Anytime you can make that much rice and not have to mess with levees, you’re doing well. You do have to get on top of grass control early.”

Irrigated rice could also reduce tillage for Dabbs. “After we harvested the rice, we burned it off and drilled wheat. We think that when we harvest the wheat, we’re going to be able to go with soybeans. So we hope to get three crops on that one set of beds. That’s going to cut some trips across the field.”

Dabbs is sure that water conservation will be the biggest advantage of the system. “I wish we had used flow meters to actually prove we used less water, but I’m thinking we did.”

The system’s best use, according to Dabbs, is with a tailwater recovery system. “I had set up a ditch with a relift pump at the tail end of the fields. So I can actually circulate the water if I want to.”

Despite the ability to use and reuse surface water on many fields, “we’ve probably pumped more water this year than we had ever pumped before since I’ve been farming,” Dabbs said. “It was a tough, dry year. And it’s been even more expensive with the fuel costs where they are.”

Water availability could improve with the controversial White Water Irrigation District in place. Irrigation water from the project will be pumped from the White River and sent through a series of pipes and canals to about 900 farmers, including Dabbs.

“All the farmers around here have gone about as far as we can on conservation, building reservoirs and tailwater recovery ditches,” Dabbs said. “In order for all these systems to work, we have to import water. If one guy builds a reservoir and a tailwater ditch, he’s just taking water away from his neighbor. So if you don’t add some more water, somebody is going to run out.”

Dabbs also experimented with second-crop rice on 25 acres this year and is cautiously optimistic that it could work under certain circumstances. “If the right opportunity presents itself, I will look at it. In this area, I still believe that’s going to be a hit or miss deal — strictly because of the weather.”

This year’s weather, however, was perfect for the practice. “We had a hot and dry September and October.”

Dabbs went with a ratoon crop on a hybrid rice field “after observing his rice fields after the first harvest. You can tell the hybrids are trying to head back out. You hardly ever see a conventional variety heading back out.”

Dabbs harvested the field of XP 728 the first time on Aug. 23, cutting 165 bushels an acre, dry. “For that field and that farm, that is an extremely good yield. I know you hear about hybrid yields a lot higher than that, and I’m going to make yields higher than that on other farms. But that is a real sandy, silt loam soil that is not normally a good rice producer.”

After harvest, he flew on 100 pounds of urea and flooded the field back up. The long fall of 2005 let Dabbs push the crop. “When I got through cutting my first rice crop, I started cutting beans. The weather was staying pretty and there was no rain in the forecast, so I just waited. The moisture was around 18 percent when we cut it.”

He waited until the end of October to harvest and cut a respectable 50 bushels on the ratoon crop. Not bad for having spent about $56 an acre in water and nitrogen.

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