Monday, October 25, 2021

Texas family enlists conservation programs to aid rice farm, wildlife

schiurring ranch sign
Four generations of the Schiurrings near El Campo, Texas, have embraced farm conservation practices — photos courtesy NRCS

Since 1910, four generations of the Schiurring family have harvested rice on the 3S Ranch near El Campo in Colorado and Wharton counties, Texas. The family grows approximately 1,500 acres of long-grain rice annually.

Third-generation, J. Brent Schiurring was one the first farmers in Texas to grow organic rice and helped start the organic rice program in the state.

The family sells their long-grain rice through a rice marketing association — American Rice Growers Inc., which are the brokers for most of the rice farmers along the Gulf Coast. During the past several years, most of the rice has been sold and shipped to buyers in Mexico.

Rice + hunting

Besides rice farming, the family runs waterfowl hunting on the ranch dating back to the late 1940s. They helped pioneer the start of commercial waterfowl hunting in their local area of Texas.

“Rice farming and duck and goose hunting go hand in hand together. What is good for rice, is also good for ducks,” said owner and fourth-generation rice farmer Slade Schiurring. “There is no better food source for waterfowl other than rice. We flood about 1,500 to 1,800 acres a year for the hunting operation. Tens of thousands of wintering waterfowl, including ducks, geese and sandhill cranes, roost and feed on our farm and neighboring farms each year.

“I was lucky enough to carry on our family history of rice farming and our waterfowl hunting operations alongside my mom and dad after I graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016. I been serving on the Wharton County Soil and Water Conservation (District) board since 2019. I have been on the local Ducks Unlimited board since 2010 and serve on the Wharton County wildlife management board and a member of Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers.”

Conservation programs

The Schiurrings use conservation programs to improve their rice fields, production and waterfowl population, while increasing their efficiency and reducing fuel costs.

laser leveling ground
The Schiurrings have received NRCS EQIP funding to help with some of their conservation practices, such as leveling fields.

The family received conservation technical help and financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to implement land leveling for efficient use of water on irrigated land.

The family also created additional wildlife and environmental benefits through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program-Conservation Stewardship Program — a partnership between NRCS and DU.

Public-private partnership

“Without NRCS and DU, land leveling and improving our rice farms would be nearly impossible due to the cost of building the infrastructure on our fields and farm for rice production,” Slade said. “Each bench levee we construct has two to three aluminum water control structures to help control water levels in each bench cut.

“Land leveling and installing these permanent water structures not only saves on water usage and the overall cost of water, but also on labor and time as well. We now can use rainfall better than ever because we can hold more rainfall due to bigger and better levees and not having to deal with blow outs causing water loss on conventional levees adding to our advantage saving on all of the above.”

Fields were leveled with laser accuracy, and each paddy is progressively 2 inches lower than the adjacent field. This allows water to flow and distribute evenly for maximum water efficiency and soil erosion protection It also allows plants to grow more uniformly, and farm equipment is supported better by the soil. In addition, the process reduces the number of paddies and curved levees that the farm equipment must navigate.

After harvest is complete, Slade also leaves crop residue in the fields. This helps protect the land from wind and water erosion but also provide food for wintering waterfowl. The residue aids in conserving soil moisture, increasing water infiltration and improving soil tilth.

Texas Prairie Wetland Project

Slade’s goal is to have underground irrigation pipelines installed through the EQIP and RCPP programs for irrigation wells. The conservation practices are key because they help eliminate evaporation water loss and save on the cost of fuel used to flood the canals and the acre-feet of groundwater pumped from the irrigation wells.

“We have done a lot of work with DU, NRCS, and Texas Parks & Wildlife through the Texas Prairie Wetland Project offsite link image offsite link image for waterfowl habitat,” he said. “The TPWP program is a key program for waterfowl conservation alongside the larger Rice Stewardship Program that is helping to create and restore the loss of wintering waterfowl habitat on the Gulf Coast of Texas.”

28 Gulf Coast counties

Established in 1991, the TPWP partners have been working with private landowners to restore, enhance and protect shallow, seasonally flooded wetland habitat on private lands in 28 counties along the Texas Gulf Coast. The availability of this critical habitat enables migratory birds to return to their northern nesting grounds in the spring in peak physical condition, thereby increasing their reproductive potential.

schiurring rice harvest
The Schiurrings flood their fields for waterfowl immediately after cutting their second, or ratoon, rice crop.

Because more than 95% of remaining wetlands are located on private land, the key to the future of waterfowl resources lies in the hands of private landowners, according to the TPWP recognition by Texan by Nature.

The Schiurrings also have helped species requiring early successional habitat. Some fields are flooded in early September to create early habitat for migrating teal. The rest of the fields are flooded immediately after they finish harvesting their second rice crop in late October to early November.

Benefits beyond wildlife habitat

Beyond wildlife habitat, wetlands also provide ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, stormwater retention, flood prevention, and water filtration. These small wetland basins are important to regional water quality because they help prevent excess contaminants and sediments from entering local waterways.

Shallow water developments were created to provide habitat for wildlife such as shorebirds, waterfowl, wading birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians and other species that require that habitat type for at least a part of their life cycle.

“The Schiurrings are one of more than 75 Texas rice farming families voluntarily participating in the RCPP partnership between Ducks Unlimited and USA Rice through our close partnership with USDA-NRCS,” said Kirby Brown, conservationist outreach biologist for DU.

“Through these partnerships, we are able to target Farm Bill Program funding on the ground to producers to enhance conservation that directly benefits water quality, water quantity, nutrient and pest management as well as water and crop management enhancements for waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, raptors and many other wildlife species. These valuable USDA conservation incentive programs are a win-win-win for rice producers, NRCS, the public, and particularly our wetland wildlife.”

Slade’s conservation efforts were recognized in 2019, when the Wharton County Soil & Water Conservation District honored him as their Outstanding Farmer of the Year.

Slade said he wants to be able to pass the rice farming operation onto his future children one day. He, along with his ancestors, know taking care of the land is the best way to ensure a family’s legacy continues.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, Texas, contributed this article.

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