Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Increasing Efficiencies in Rice

Growing a Sustainable Crop for the Bottom Line

⋅ BY CASSIDY NEMEC ⋅
EDITOR

Jeff Rutledge owns and operates a farm in Newport, Arkansas, located between and along the White River and Black River. Rutledge has an undergraduate degree in agronomy from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro and a master’s degree in agronomy from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville where he did his research on weed science.

Farm Details

When Rutledge’s grandfather came back from the war, he began buying and clearing land for the farm. On his grandfather’s side, Rutledge is a third-generation grower, while he is about the sixth generation on his grandmother’s side.

Rutledge had been buying into the operation with his father and uncle even before leaving for college. “I always knew I was going to come back here.”

He came back to farm full-time in the spring of 1999 and now has six full-time team members he said he is fortunate to have.

Rutledge said he has a very good crop consultant in Brent Lassiter with ProAg Services who looks at all his crop. “He started that company years ago and has been looking at our crop for more than 20 years.”

“A great thing about row rice in rotational corn and soybeans is that not only are you gaining efficiency in harvest, labor, and water use, but the rotation is also easier,” Rutledge said.

On the farm, they grow rice, corn, and soybeans. Rutledge said it depends on the year but that they will typically rotate from rice to soybeans and soybeans to rice. “We don’t have a lot of fields where we can rotate rice, corn, and soybeans in the same field, but when we do, we don’t ever plant rice behind corn or corn behind rice; we will have a soybean crop in between those.”

The ground, all precision-leveled, is composed mainly of a heavy silt-loam soil with some more light and sandy ground along the river.

They have diesel, electric, and natural gas wells throughout the farm, with electric and natural gas making up the majority.

Over the years, Rutledge has adopted more technological advancements in ag. “GPS precision technology has probably been the biggest technological shift over the past 10 to 15 years,” he said. “With any kind of row crop, you’re getting down to sub-inch accuracy, which makes us more efficient so that we’re not wasting herbicides or even seed with Precision Planting.”

“Anytime we as producers can be more efficient, we are going to be because that means more to the bottom line since our costs are one of the only things we have control over to some extent. We’re always looking to our crop consultant, to university research, and anywhere else we can find more efficiencies,” Rutledge said.

He added that the research provided by the university provides validation for them on ever-evolving issues and methods in rice production. “You don’t have a lot of large companies putting a lot of money into rice-specific products because of its market, so the university is very important in that aspect as well.”

Exploring Different Avenues of Rice

Rutledge, in addition to levee rice, grows row rice on his farm. “I started doing that about eight years ago,” he said. “We’ve steadily increased the acreage each year to be 75% to 80% of our rice acreage now. We put it everywhere it fits. We do have some fields that are short and wide where it doesn’t fit, or it may be a small field with a compound fall, but those would be the only places we don’t have it at this point.”

He said they plant a lot of the hybrid varieties for their row rice due to the disease package with blast resistance being their biggest issue on row rice. “If you have a hot, dry year, that can really decimate your yields,” he said.

“A great thing about row rice in rotational corn and soybeans is that not only are you gaining efficiency in harvest, labor, and water use, but the rotation is also easier,” Rutledge said. “We may go back in and clean the furrows out, but it’s basically no-till where we can just leave the beds and plant back in. It also allows you to do cover crops on that since you’re not having to go back in and tear down levees.”

The university had also done research on Rutledge’s farm to compare row rice and levee rice in terms of water usage and found a 20% to 30% decrease in water use with row rice. “Not only are you saving on water, but labor costs are also significantly less when you’re not dealing with levees, and the harvest efficiency is much better.”

According to Rutledge, insect pressure can vary based on the year. He said they are looking for rice water weevils early in the year. “Billbugs are also kind of a new one related to the row rice production since it’s not a continuously flooded environment,” he said.

Later in the year, they look for stinkbugs that will affect the quality of the grain. They also look for sheath blight, blast, and brown spot later in the year. “You’ve got a lot of fungal and bacterial diseases in rice that you’re always scouting for this time of year,” Rutledge said.

Conservation and Sustainability

One of the biggest developments Rutledge noted over the past five to 10 years has been the focus on conservation and sustainability. He said a lot of producers were already implementing conservation practices but have been given more incentives to do so the past decade. “Across the board, we as U.S. producers produce the most affordable, sustainable, and efficient food, fiber, and fuel more than anywhere else in the world.”

Rutledge said they implement cover crops where they fit on the farm. “It doesn’t work everywhere, but we have them where we can.

“That’s been an issue in policy, especially in the conservation realm, as of late,” he said. “A lot of the conservation practices that have been pushed for climate-smart programs don’t necessarily work for rice because it’s so different in its production system. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution.”

Row rice and alternate wetting and drying are other water sustainability methods Rutledge has implemented on his farm.

“Our groundwater is 20 to 30 feet deep,” Rutledge said. “It only fluctuates to whatever the river level is, so we don’t really have issues with the groundwater quantity or quality here. Our issue here is that yes, the groundwater is 20 feet below the ground, but sometimes it can be 20 feet above the ground.”

He said there is not a lot they can do when it does flood but that they have power units in all their wells. “We’ll try to get everything out we can. We pull gear heads sometimes if we have enough notice beforehand.”

A Close-Knit Industry

Rutledge is very involved in the Arkansas and U.S. rice industry. “It’s a very small industry,” he said. “We’re all connected.”

Within Arkansas, he is on the Arkansas Rice Federation board, Arkansas Rice Council board, Arkansas Ag Council board, Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion board, the Jackson County Farm Bureau board, and the Arkansas Waterways Commission. He also plays an active role on the executive committee for his region’s AgHeritage Farm Credit Services board.

As far as the U.S. as a whole, Rutledge is on the USA Rice Federation board and is vice chairman for the USA Rice Council board as an Arkansas representative. He also participated in the 2005 Rice Leadership Class. “That’s been a very successful program,” he said. “Most of the leadership in the rice industry has gone through and been alumnus of that program, so it’s been good to see it fulfill its role in sourcing and preparing leaders for the industry.”

Rutledge said he has been fortunate to reap many benefits from his involvement in the rice industry. “I’ve gotten to be involved in a lot of the policy work in D.C. and have been able to see how that directly affects us,” he said. “It benefits me personally as a rice farmer, but I get to work on it to benefit all rice farmers and the industry as a whole.

“Being involved in the industry really lets you see the big picture of the industry and how we’re all connected as far as merchants, millers, farmers, and how they all work together.”

He said they are not just looking out for their own operations. “We’re looking out for the industry as a whole that supports us. That was impressed upon me by my dad who was very involved; he taught me the importance of being involved and doing what you can to support the industry. It’s our livelihood — ensuring the continued profitability of the industry we make our living from.”

Rutledge places high importance on his faith and family. “My wife is my partner in the operation and keeps the bills paid and me on schedule. My children also grew up working on the farm. All the successes, challenges, opportunities, and abilities have been blessings from God.”

He said knowing they are producing something is rewarding to him.

“To know that our labor is feeding the world — you do get some satisfaction out of seeing the fruits of your labor through the season and being able to steward the resources — land and water — and help the people and economy who are dependent on agriculture. There is some reward in being a part of that and being a foundation of that economy.”

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