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Heavy rains helped

The topic this month is water management, which has become an increasingly contentious and important issue for Texas rice farmers. As many of you know, central Texas and the Texas Rice Belt were in a severe drought until late last year. Up until this time, about 40 to 50 percent of Texas rice acreage was in jeopardy of not receiving sufficient water in 2010.

Lakes Buchanan and Travis, which feed the Colorado River, located northwest of Austin in the Hill Country, were at water levels low enough to trigger use restrictions. For instance, record low levels were recorded last fall in these lakes – only 0.7 million acre feet. Thus, in 2009, the possibility existed that water administered by the Lower Colorado River Authority would be drastically curtailed for rice farming in 2010 if the drought continued through the fall and winter of 2009/2010.

Fortunately, central Texas and the Texas Rice Belt received enough water during the fall and winter to fill lake levels to about 1.73 million acre feet, which is great news for our rice farmers.

Basically, this means our farmers using water from the Lower Colorado River will have sufficient amounts to grow a main and ratoon crop in 2010! Our farmers are becoming very adept at producing a ratoon crop. Many of our farmers produce ratoon crop yields equal to 1/2 main crop yields, so water for the ratoon crop is vitally important to the sustainability of our rice industry.

Abundant rainfall during the fall and winter also helped our farmers in the southern portions of Jefferson and Chambers Counties devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008. Salt concentrations in these soils have decreased significantly due to the heavy rains, so many of our rice farmers in these counties will plant this year. However, there is a flip side to the abundant precipitation and unseasonably cold temperatures because planting this year is delayed. What we need now is extended dry, warm weather to really kick off a good rice crop.

Discussing water abundance brings to mind water conservation. Our farmers are much more efficient at growing rice than in the past. In the 1970s, typical water usage for Texas rice was five to seven acre feet compared to now, which is about 27 inches. Research, Extension and adoption of water conservation practices by our rice farmers have made this dramatic change possible. Continue to use your rice water efficiently – think of it as an essential, limited resource and think of yourself as the caretaker of this gift – that you pay for dearly!

As always, I have to say something about pest management. Water and pest management go hand-in-hand. You can control many insect pest problems by manipulating your water – timely flushing and flooding can often control chinch bug, fall armyworm and aphids attacking seedling rice. But, you must check your fields often and carefully to find these critters – scout, scout and scout some more.

I thank Dr. Garry McCauley for providing much of the information presented in this article.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the passing of Hal Koop who was a superb rice farmer in Jackson County and a strong supporter of research and Extension programs. Hal was a long-time board member of the Texas Rice Research Foundation. Hal was very smart and gracious at the same time; he did not try to impress, but his actions spoke volumes. We dearly miss Hal – a true friend of and advocate for the Texas rice industry.


Flooding & draining

If you cannot manage water, you should not grow rice. It is that simple and that critical. There is no single management practice in rice production more important than knowing when to drain or when to flood. A companion to that is the ability to flood and drain in a timely fashion. Years ago a farmer taught me one lesson about growing rice I have never forgotten because every year a situation presents itself that warrants its use: If you have a problem you can’t figure out, and the field is flooded, drain it, or, if it is drained, flood it. It’s my standard “I don’t know what is wrong” recommendation and has saved me many times.
When should rice be flooded? As soon as the seedlings will tolerate it. In drill-seeded rice, this might be as young as three-leaf rice on silt loam soils where rice was planted very shallowly. If rice seed are placed one inch or more deep, something I almost never recommend, it will likely reach the two- to three-tiller stage before it will tolerate permanent flood.

The only documented negative effect on early flooding is an increase in the likelihood of rice water weevil infestation. Dr. Stout has proven this in his plots. It makes sense because the rice water weevil needs standing water to oviposit (lay eggs). The pest has evolved along with rice, so it is no surprise that what favors rice favors it.

I like to flood our verification fields as soon as we are able. Sometimes it is just a “gut feeling” more than any concrete determination. If we are in doubt, we don’t flood. The advantages I have seen in our verification fields of flooding early are better weed control, better nutrient utilization and earlier maturity. The primary purpose of growing rice in flooded fields is weed control. However, 3,000 years of rice culture has led to the development of plants that prefer growing in flooded fields. Keep this in mind if you want to try one of the alternative methods of growing rice.

One of the most frequent mistakes I see is the reluctance to flush a field when it is necessary. I know, this is the “bad word” in rice production. No one likes to flush. It is not easy, and it is not cheap. We use flushing in our verification fields to maintain moisture, keep nutrients in solution and enhance herbicide activity. The need to flush simply to supply water happens mostly on heavy clay soils where it appears there is enough soil moisture to sustain growth when really there is not. Rice is not cotton. It does not have a tap root, and it does not like cracks in clay where air can dehydrate its shallow root system. If the soil is cracking in clay soils, it is too dry.

Another common problem I run into is inadequate water supply. A young farmer told me he can now drill seed 200 acres a day if he has no breakdowns. Airplanes can sow more than that. That looks good when the planting window is open, but when it is time to flood or flush, you might find you have outrun your headlights. If a field cannot be flushed in two to four days or flooded in three to five days, it is too big for the water supply.

“How deep should my flood be?” is a frequent question. It depends. A shallow flood of two inches is enough on a smooth, uniform field. As the plants grow, the flood can be increased to about four inches and maintained at that level. A corrugated or sloping field may require six inches of water on the low side of a paddy to achieve a two-inch flood on the top.

Obviously, this results in a delay of establishment of permanent flood until the rice plants are large enough to tolerate six inches of water on the low side at the expense of those on the high side of the paddy. Uniformity of depth is more important than average depth, especially in the seedling stages.

Draining rice is just as critical at certain stages as is flooding the crop. It is important to be able to remove water in as rapid a manner as possible. If rice is grown on a zero-grade field, lots of ditches should be made at or just after planting to ensure good drainage.

Last year, we were called to a first time rice grower’s field. He had done an excellent job of leveling the field, but he had no drains except on the perimeter of the field. Recommending to him that he put in shallow ditches at about 100-foot intervals (in his field) probably was the most important thing we said to him that day.

To grow rice successfully, you have to be able to manage water. Some of the old farmers were real artists with water. I have always admired them.


Water conservation!

Water conservation is a mindset that will soon have to be adopted in the Mississippi Delta. With a declining water aquifer, water conservation could soon be mandated if not adopted soon. Mississippi rice producers, over time, have become more efficient with water use. Most of the efficiency has come from precision land forming and the use of polypipe for rice irrigation. Even with this technology, rice producers need to think about tightening the belt another notch.

Yazoo Mississippi Delta Joint Water Management District (YMD) has collected data on water use in rice using various irrigation practices. Precision land forming (straight levee rice) results in an annual water savings in six inches of water over contour levee rice (44.4 inches of water). The use of side-inlet irrigation, with straight levee rice production, results in saving another 7.2 inches of water over straight levee rice (38.4 inches of water). Zero-grade rice production uses approximately 20 inches of water, which is less water than any other irrigation practice in rice. Zero-grade rice production has advantages in rice monoculture system; however, problems exist with rotation crops such as soybean.

Based on current estimates, the use of side-inlet irrigation in straight levee production would save approximately $13 to $15/A over traditional flooding in straight levee rice. With side-inlet, additional savings can be seen when a pumping cycle (turning the well on every five to seven days) can be established over keeping the paddies continually full. Meaning that if a rainfall event occurred between pumping cycles, that water could be captured since the flood was allowed to subside – decline two to four inches below the gate height.

These are ideas that rice producers need to be thinking about to prevent further regulations imposed on water use in Mississippi. Poly-pipe is the most valuable tool to help initiate water conservation. Without it, adopting water conservation methods will be difficult.


Irrigation techniques

Water is by far our most valuable resource. As rice farmers, we are heavily dependent on ample supplies of good quality water for irrigation. We also understand the importance of conserving this resource and maximizing the benefits of the water that we do use. There are several practices that we can follow to enhance water conservation and efficiency. Some are easily implemented in the current year, while others require a long-term commitment.

Long-term commitments that have long-term returns include land formation, reservoir construction and tail-water recovery systems. Each of these practices has an important role that offers benefits other than simply conserving water. Typically, water management capabilities in a given field will be improved, which should lead to increased yields and increased efficiency of other inputs such as weed, fertilizer and disease management.

Precision-leveled fields continue to increase in Arkansas as more landowners understand the benefits of the investment.

As groundwater supplies decline, reservoir construction and tailwater recovery systems become increasingly important. In addition to saving water, irrigation with reservoir water is generally going to be less likely to increase the soil pH above the levels for optimum rice production. One of the most “quick fix” solutions to water management problems where pumping capacity is limited is with the use of Multiple Inlet Rice Irrigation (MIRI) by polytubing. The adoption of this technology for irrigating rice in Arkansas has gone from less than one percent of the acreage in 1999 to more than 40 percent in 2009. It is now used on more than 600,000 acres in Arkansas alone. Growers report an average of 15 percent in water savings compared to conventional flood techniques. In side-by-side comparisons, we have measured as much as a 50 percent savings.

A lot of interest has been raised recently in alternative irrigation techniques for rice in the Mid-South. Furrow-irrigated rice (row-watered rice) has been adopted by some producers on selected fields. Furrow-irrigated rice has potential on some fields with steep slopes where levees are really close together or on fields where water capacity is not adequate to maintain a flood. Rice grown with center-pivot sprinkler irrigation has also been utilized in some areas. Intermittent irrigation where the flood is not strictly maintained is another technique that has been evaluated. Each of these systems may use less water, but they do not necessarily save water. Rice is not a drought-tolerant crop, and a significant challenge with these techniques is that data to assist with irrigation timing and frequency is limited.

My biggest concern about each of these irrigation systems is the impact on blast fungus. It is imperative that blast-resistant varieties (Templeton, Cybonnet or the hybrids) be grown in these systems. With weather like 2009, blast would cause crop failure with almost any other variety. If these alternative irrigation practices become more widespread, we will likely put more pressure on the blast resistance. Just like barnyardgrass has adapted and overcome many of the rice herbicides, the blast fungus can evolve to overcome the resistance we currently have with the hybrids. Then, we will no longer have a source of resistance to this disease. While our fungicides are more effective against blast now than they were before the introduction of Quadris, they are not completely effective in environments that are most conducive to blast. It is important that we use these alternative irrigation techniques only in selective situations.


Mandates, Penalties In Health Bill Worry Farmers

Both as consumers who buy health insurance for themselves and their families and as small-business owners who must manage employee benefits, farmers and ranchers believe the health care bill passed by Congress in early March could have serious consequences for rural health care and for small employers, according to the leader of California’s largest farm organization – the Farm Bureau Federation.

“Family farmers understand firsthand the need to improve the health care system, but the bill Congress passed will be a huge undertaking both for our nation and for individuals,” California Farm Bureau Federation president Paul Wenger said.

He noted that many farmers struggle to find affordable health care coverage as they also struggle to keep their small businesses afloat during the current recession. But in its effort to extend health coverage to millions of uncovered Americans, Congress imposed mandates and penalties that Wenger said could undermine that goal.

Fewer mandates and more incentives
“The new taxes, mandates, growth in government programs and overall cost of the bill trouble farmers and ranchers,” he said. “We agree on the need to rein in health care costs, but we prefer a step-by-step approach, with fewer mandates and more incentives, to give people greater individual control over their health care.”

Wenger said that, despite assurances, farmers and ranchers remain concerned that reduced Medicare reimbursements could squeeze rural hospitals and health care facilities that already face serious financial challenges.

He said Congress had ignored a request from farm groups to provide greater clarity about how the new legislation will affect farmers, ranchers and rural residents.

“As people who operate small businesses, farmers and ranchers will do their best to meet the requirements of the new law, and Farm Bureau will provide them with information they need to comply,” Wenger said. “But the new coverage mandate poses real financial challenges for family farmers. This additional mandate, on top of the many others family farmers must cope with, will complicate their efforts to keep their farms and ranches sustainable.”

The California Farm Bureau Federation granted permission to reprint this article.

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