Rice Farming

Planning Pays Off

Arkansas rice farm depends on detailed records,
technology and persistence

By Carroll Smith

When you farm land that borders three different rivers, you’ve got to have a good crop plan going forward from year to year. Greg Baltz and Howard Thielemier, who are partners in an Arkansas rice and soybean operation near Pocahontas, say they are used to farming in the river bottoms.

They don’t plan on a flood each season, but they have learned how to adapt when it happens. If a flood does occur, it usually comes in the off season.

“A flood at planting or harvest time is the exception, not the rule,” Thielemier says. “We try to be as prepared as we can to make the best use of our time. We follow the recommendations made by the seed companies and the University of Arkansas Extension service and usually don’t have to adjust our planting dates.”

Thielemier says production techniques, such as no-till, minimum till and stale seedbed work well in their situation, too.

“If we have a window to get something done, we do it,” he says. “That might give us a head start on the next production process we have to go through in case a situation comes up. So we do have to plan and operate a little differently than people who farm outside of a flood plain.”

If a flood does hit them, Baltz and Thielemier have special exhaust pumps or ditch pumps they can use to get the water off the fields. More often, these same pumps are used to put irrigation water on the fields. Over half of their operation utilizes surface water vs. well water.

Also, most of their ground is precision leveled, and each field has a road around it that stands about a foot higher than the field. These “high roads” help them manage excess water but, more importantly, provide access to the whole field.

“We take the risks that flood plains dish out because there are a lot of advantages that go along with it, too,” Thielemier says. “We have good, fertile ground and access to surface water, which is becoming more of a factor in the economics of crop production.”

Hybrid users since day one
Over the years, Baltz and Thielemier have enjoyed rice yield increases that they largely attribute to planting hybrids, which they’ve planted since the technology first became available.

In 2007, they planted 800 acres of Clearfield XL729, 850 acres of XL 723 and 710 acres of Clearfield XL730 with an average yield of 184 bushels per acre. Baltz notes that the hybrids take a little less nitrogen (N) than the conventional varieties, and the application timing is somewhat different.

“We put out about 150 units of N early,” Baltz says. “Then we come back with 30 to 40 units at late mid-season. On our farm, the hybrids outyield the conventional varieties by 30 to 40 bushels at times,” he adds.

“The hybrids are good products. They are one of the things we can point to and know we are making the right decision. Plus, with Ron Baxley, our private consultant and the tech reps from RiceTec, we have more eyes on the field and feet on the ground than we did in the past.”

Taking record keeping to another level
To help keep the farm operating smoothly and efficiently, Baltz keeps detailed records of every aspect of the operation.

“I keep a book in my truck that contains a record of everything I do on the farm,” he says. “Each of our workers also receives a book containing field boundary maps overlayed with Google maps that they keep with them at all times.”

Baltz describes how these books are used in a typical rice farm scenario, such as planting and pulling levees.
“I do all of the planting using a GPS AutoSteer tractor with RTK, which gives you one-inch accuracy without having to touch the steering wheel,” he says. “Another man runs the levee plow three or four fields behind me. We don’t survey levees. We work through the field setup screens on his tractor guidance monitor. This is easily accomplished over our tractor radios.

“He has his book that denotes the angle and degree of slope of each field. I have programs set up in his tractor, which is equipped with RTK level of GPS AutoSteer as well, that can be recalled to pull the levees in any given compass direction and at any spacing. If the slope falls to the south, the levees run east-west,” Baltz says. “I have programs set up in his tractor, which is RTK AutoSteer as well, to run east-west, north-south or at an angle. We try to make this critical information available to everyone who works on the farm.”

In addition to creating the maps, Baltz keeps up with all expenses related to the farm and updates them every month. He also notes what variety or hybrid is supposed to be planted in which field.

“If someone other than me is running the planter and is about to go to a new field, he needs to check the book to see what seed is supposed to be planted there,” Baltz says. “We plant with an air drill that has two hoppers. Our front hopper would contain XL723, and the back hopper XL729. So rather than planting all of one variety first, we could change fields and then just flip a switch to change varieties.”

  The Arkansas farmer notes that “the book” is constantly updated. Baltz keeps a list of their equipment and serial numbers, the landlords, farms and where they are located, account numbers and vendors with whom they do business, flying services, all of the field information and a list of employees.

“Whatever anyone who works here needs to perform his duties, those are the pages that are included in his book,” he says.

Obviously, persistence, technology, detailed record keeping and fertile ground contribute to the success of this Arkansas farming operation. In addition to these factors, Thielemier points out how helpful it is that he and Baltz are able to split up the duties of a 4,500-acre farm based on each of their areas of expertise.

“We also have really good landlords,” he says. “They are very progressive. We rarely go to them with a plan to make things better that they don’t go along with it.”

Contact Carroll Smith at (901) 767-4020 or csmith@onegrower.com.

Grid sampling/VRAs save money and address pH levels
Ron Baxley, crop consultant for the Baltz/Thielemier operation, helps the Arkansas farmers monitor and maintain the fertility in their fields and makes recommendations for weed, disease and insect control. He's also in charge of taking soil samples.

“In the past, we could put out as much fertilizer as we wanted to for $20 an acre,” Baxley says. “At that time, it wasn't economically feasible to grid sample and make variable rate applications.

“Now that the cost of fertilizer is so high, we are taking advantage of this technology,” he explains. “I've made some comparisons based on grid sampling and prescription map applications vs. a blanket application. Based on today's fertilizer prices, it looks like grid sampling and variable rate application can result in a cost savings of $20 an acre. We're putting the fertilizer where it needs to be and not in areas where it is not needed.”

Baxley says out of an 80-acre field, they may only fertilize 30 acres, whereas in the past, a blanket application went out.

During the upcoming season, the Arkansas consultant says he also will be taking a hard look at the pH levels on the Baltz/Thielemier farms.

“Greg and Howard use a lot of surface water from the rivers to irrigate their crops, so the pH is low in some fields,” Baxley says. “Some of the other area farmers who don't use surface irrigation water get a lot of calcium carbonate from the aquifers, so many of their fields don't have a need for lime.

“Once we determine the pH levels on Greg's and Howard's fields, we can make variable rate applications of lime where needed,” he adds. “I think this will be a big benefit for them.”