Row rice continues to make inroads as growers seek ways to reduce labor and equipment costs.
By Vicky Boyd
Even after experimenting with furrow-irrigated or row rice for three seasons, Monty Bohanan — who farms with his brother Derek near Stuttgart, Ark. — admits they still have a lot to learn.
“We’re finding out what works and what doesn’t work,” he says.
Justin Berg, who farms east of Stuttgart, also tried row rice last year in a 10-acre field as an experiment.
“It did really well. It was the best rice I had and made 245 bushels green,” he says.
Based on what he learned, Berg plans to expand his row-rice acreage to 75 this year in a field that traditionally had a lot of levees.
The Bohanans and Berg are a few of an increasing number of producers trying the practice, which involves furrow irrigating rice much like you would water soybeans, corn or cotton, says Brian Ottis, solutions development lead with Houston-based RiceTec.
In fact, in the Missouri Bootheel where the practice was likely born about 25 years ago, growers are predicted to plant about 30 percent of the overall acreage to row rice.
With the change in irrigation practices, growers also may have to modify their pest-control practices as well as fertility.
No levee gates to manage
The Bohanans decided to try row rice originally because three of their fields had so many levees, they were basically growing levee rice with the associated lower yields. One 30-acre field, for example, had 30 levees.
“If we did get a good stand on the levees or levee ditches, I remember one year cutting 160 (bushels) —that’s about all we could get,” Monty Bohanan says. “That’s a lot of levees and a lot of gates to check throughout the summer time.”
As with most row-rice growers, the Bohanans planted hybrids from RiceTec because of plant vigor, robust tillering and a strong blast package.
Since putting the three fields in hybrid row rice, they averaged about 200 bushels green the first two years—about the same as their flood-irrigated fields planted to the Clearfield variety, CL 151.
In 2016, yields were lower across the board. But Bohanan says, “The row rice was down but not as far down as the rest of our rice was. So it was disappointing but it was just the year. We’re going to try again this year.”
Despite the benefi ts of row rice, Bohanan said they aren’t about to convert their relatively flat fields because of the risks.
“There’s a lot of money up front in the hybrid seed costs,” Bohanan says. “Most years, the CL 151 has been a really good variety for us, and we cut 200 bushels.”
Finding a fit for row rice
Although many growers in Arkansas’ Grand Prairie have converted fields with numerous levees over to furrow irrigation, Ottis says they may not see a water savings and could possibly be using more.
Where those producers may benefit is from reduced labor— they don’t have to build so many levees and raise or lower multiple gates throughout the season, he says. They also may have a more efficient harvest because they won’t be slowed by having to cut up and around each levee.
In addition, producers also may experience a cost savings since they can avoid major cultivation and simply no-till rice into last year’s soybean fields.
But where Ottis says he’s seen row rice really shine is in laser-leveled fields, such as in Northeast Arkansas.
“The growers who are aggressive managers typically have the most success with row rice,” he says. “The flatter the field, the more success you’re going to have with row rice.”
Fields that have been precision leveled with about a 1/10th drop also experience the most water savings, Ottis says.
Modify weed control
As with any crop, the key to successful row rice is starting with a clean field, Ottis says.
Where growers using conventional flood may make two in-season herbicide applications, growers of row rice typically make three.
Most producers of row rice also opt for Clearfield hybrids to expand weed-control options.
“Most of the row-rice growers prefer to grow Clearfield hybrids because of the residual component of the Newpath and the Clearpath (herbicides),” he says. “What we also find is when they’re making an herbicide application, they are including some type of residual in the tank.”
Quinclorac and pendimethalin are popular tankmix partners. In a conventional system, rice growers typically don’t have to deal with Palmer pigweed except on levees, since the flood prevents the weed from germinating.
In the absence of a flood, pigweed can become a problem in row-rice fields.
Also known as Palmer amaranth, the weed is resistant to glyphosate throughout nearly all of the Southern Rice Belt. In addition, pockets of the weed are resistant to multiple herbicides, including glyphosate, ALS inhibitors, dinitroaniline and PPO herbicides.
“So that’s a tricky one,” Ottis says of the multiple resistance. “Facet and propanil do a pretty decent job on pigweed when it’s very small. But if it gets any size on it, pigweed can be a big problem.”
Depending on soil type, Ottis says producers of row rice also may have to modify their fertility program.
“What we found is the more clay content, the more the soil will bind up the nitrogen and the fewer applications you will make,” he says.
On the lighter soils, growers may have to break up nitrogen applications into smaller doses.
Berg ended up with a bit more spoon feeding in his row rice field. Typically with flood irrigation, he applies a large portion of the nitrogen preflood, then a smaller portion just before panicle initiation.
With the row rice, he made three split applications of about 100 pounds of product each.
Don’t go it alone
Based on data RiceTec has collected annually on row rice throughout the Mid-South and South, Ottis says growers typically can expect yields to be about 10-15 percent less than the same hybrid grown with conventional flood.
“But guys who are really dialed in are getting comparable or even better yields than they would on flood,” he says. “They may not be making a whole lot more rice, but their net is so much better because of reduced equipment and labor costs.”
For growers who want to try row rice, Ottis recommends they initially experiment with a small field and work with an experienced consultant or talk to growers already doing it.
Berg is one of those, having dipped his toe into row rice in 2016 with 10 acres and planning to wade in a bit further this year. But he admits he’s a realist and says managing this year’s 75 acres of row rice probably won’t be as easy as last year.
“I’m expecting more challenges on a bigger scale this year just because of more area, and I’m not going to be able to run the water throughout the whole field at once,” he says. “I’m going to have to split it. This year is going to be a little bit more of trial and error.”
Since the system is different and can be managed in many different ways, it is difficult to answer all possible questions related to the topic in a single information sheet.
Keep in mind that many of the recommendations in the information sheet are based on limited research and a wide range of experiences, says University of Arkansas Extension rice specialist Jarrod Hardke.
Additional research efforts are underway to continue to improve these recommendations. Should you have any additional questions about particular scenarios, you may contact Hardke at email@example.com or 501-772-1714.