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Pivotal Decision

Missouri farmers try pivot-irrigated rice

By Carroll Smith
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In 2010, two Missouri Bootheel farmers, Donny DeLine and Patrick Hulshof, decided to grow a field of pivot-irrigated rice on each of their respective farms. However, both men were motivated by different circumstances to try this alternative rice-watering approach.

DeLine, whose family farming operation includes land in Missouri, southern Illinois, Arkansas and west Tennessee, said this particular farm in Missouri is marginal. And the field on which he would grow pivot-irrigated rice was characterized as having a “Heinz 57” soil type, varying from light sand to black dirt and everything in between.

“I felt we could make a good rice crop on the heavy dirt, but I wanted to see what kind of rice crop we could make when the soil varied from one texture to another all in the same field,” DeLine says. “2010 is the first time this field had ever been planted in rice, and I chose to plant Clearfield XL729.”

After working the ground to get it in shape, the soil dried out, so he had to run the pivot around the field three or four times to keep the ground moist until the rice germinated and sprouted. Also during that time, he was able to chemigate, applying Command through the pivot. He fertigated about half of his 180 units of nitrogen also using the pivot. The rest of the N was put out early in dry form.

How often the pivot runs depends on rainfall, but last year was hot and dry, so DeLine ran the pivot every other day, putting out four to five tenths of an inch of water each time. All total, he made about 40 passes before wrapping up the season. DeLine’s pivot ran on a track system, instead of tires, and never once got stuck.

Lessons Learned From Yield Differences

At harvest, the yield monitor registered about 125 bu/A on the sandiest soil and from 210 to 215 bu/A on the heavier dirt. DeLine says the milling quality was very good on the pivot-irrigated rice. He believes this happened because he was watering over the top of the crop and was able to keep the rice cooler while it was pollinating.

DeLine attributes the yield difference in the field to two factors.

“First, I think we leached some of our nitrogen (N) out of the real light, sandy soil, and, second, we didn’t put enough water on the sandy soil,” he says. “When I do this again, I will set up the pivot so that the water can be put out at variable rates. For example, we may want to apply an inch on the real sandy soil and three or four tenths of an inch on the black dirt to keep the whole field at about the same moisture level.”

DeLine also notes that “without getting down to the pennies, just looking at my watering costs, I spent less on the pivot-irrigated rice than I did on my flood-irrigated rice partly because an electric turbine ran cheaper than a diesel unit did last year.

“I definitely feel that there is a place for pivot-irrigated rice,” he adds. “We learned that it can be done, and we can make a good rice crop – not just get by.”

Disappointing Bean Yields Were A Factor

Patrick Hulshof also farms in Missouri with his father, Vince, and, until last year, had never grown rice before. His motivation for trying a field of pivot-irrigated rice was that his soybean yields had topped out in the mid-40s, and his topsoil is only about eight inches deep.

“We were looking for something that would do more than just pay the bills, which is about all that 45-bushel beans will do for us,” Hulshof says.

Like DeLine, Hulshof planted Clearfield XL729. The 80-acre field was uneven – not put to grade. While DeLine’s pivot ran on tracks, Hulshof’s had 16.9-24 tires with a dry wheel sprinkler package.

“Our ruts in the heavier soils were probably a foot deep by the end of the year,” he says, “but they were packed down, so we never got stuck.”

Pivot-Irrigated Rice Tips

“If needed, turn on the water to activate herbicides.”
Jim Heiser – University of Missouri Delta Research Center

“Use hose drops to improve application efficiency.”
Jerry Gerdes – Valmont Irrigation

“Sometimes the tendency is to quit watering too soon, but don’t.”
Dr. Gene Stevens – University of Missouri Delta Research Center

“Take the shallow root system of rice into consideration when keeping up with pivot applications.”
Dr. Earl Vories – USDA-ARS

“Hybrid rice performs well under pivot irrigation because of earliness, nitrogen-use efficiency, higher water-use efficiency and disease package.”
Greg Simpson – RiceTec

Five- To Seven-Pound Increments Of Nitrogen

Hulshof began watering the field at planting and incorporated his chemicals right away, with good advice from veteran crop consultant Delbert Gilooly. The first part of the season was marked by heavy rain, but by the middle of May, he started watering on a regular basis. All total, Hulshof made 41 or 42 turns with the pivot and applied about 19 inches of water.

The Missouri farmer also notes that he applied all of his nitrogen through the pivot.

“We put out 200 to 210 pounds of N in five- to seven-pound increments,” Hulshof says. “Essentially, any time that the pivot was running, we were spoonfeeding the rice with minute amounts of nitrogen.”

The final yield – weighed, registered and dried – came in at 201 bu/A. The milling quality was high, and Hulshof realized about a 40-cent premium for his rice.

“The pivot-irrigated rice was an easy fit and a good learning experience for us,” he says. “Although we were pleased with how it turned out, the two biggest surprises were our chemical costs at $190 per acre and the fact that the soil wouldn’t hold more than about three tenths of an inch of water at any one time. We learned real fast that we had to make frequent applications using a light amount of water.”

When asked if he believed that planting pivot-irrigated rice turned out better than planting soybeans on that 80-acre field, Hulshof had a quick answer.

“Absolutely. It was as profitable for me as 200-bushel corn.”

Contact Carroll Smith at (901) 767-4020 or

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