Louisiana brothers embrace the 4R’s to nurture soil and improve production
• By Vicky Boyd
Even before the term “sustainable” was popular, the Durands had adopted production practices that conserved and enhanced the natural resources on their rice and crawfish operation in St. Martin Parish, southeast of Lafayette, Louisiana.
Over the years, the Durands have received multiple awards for their conservation efforts. Although Jeff Durand, one of the partners in the family farming business, says they appreciate the recognition, he says that’s not why they’ve adopted their sustainability philosophy.
Rather, they view the soil on their farm as a living organism that needs to be nurtured and improved for it to give back in terms of production. They also want to pass on the farm to the next generation in better condition than when they took it over.
Brother C.J. Durand, also a farm partner, echoes Jeff’s sentiments, adding the third-party accolades just reaffirm they’re proceeding in the right direction.
In 2018, The Fertilizer Institute named C.J., Jeff, brother Greg and their crop consultant, Earl Garber of Basile, Louisiana, as one of five teams of 4R Advocates for the year. And as Jeff quickly points out, they were the only ones selected to represent rice.
“One of the things we learned is we were on the correct path, and we felt grateful being recognized for it,” C.J. says. “With all of the farmers they could have chosen, they chose us, which was an honor.”
The 4R Advocate program recognizes agricultural retailers and their grower customers who are leading the way in implementing 4R Nutrient Stewardship on the farm. The 4R’s stand for the right fertilizer source, right rate, right time and right place.
Thinking outside the box
The three Durand brothers started farming crawfish with their father in the early 1970s after he cleared woodlands near St. Martinsville. By 1980, they added no-till rice to the farming business.
About the same time, they founded Teche Valley Seafood Inc., which sells live crawfish and processed crawfish products directly to buyers. Their sisters — Connie, Margo and Joanna — oversee the seafood operation.
To help them with agronomic questions, the brothers turned to Dr. Johnny Saichuk, an agronomist with G&H Seed who eventually joined the Louisiana State University AgCenter as rice Extension specialist. More recently, the Durands have sought the advice of Garber, an agronomist and certified crop adviser who recently retired from Pinnacle/Sanders.
“They challenge my knowledge and my ability to address agronomy needs on their farm because they’re thinking outside the box and thinking differently than conventional row-crop farmers,” Garber says.
“They’re looking to get their soil more productive. They’re not looking to be the biggest farmers, but they’re looking to be the most productive on the acres they have. But I enjoyed that challenge because I like a challenge.”
Focus on soil health
The Durands typically grow three years of rice before idling the field to allow for land leveling touchup and soil sampling on a 2.5-acre grid. The results of the soil sampling guide variable-rate applications of potassium and phosphorus. The goal, Jeff says, is to create as uniform a crop as possible
The brothers also are some of the few in the area to use the Haney Test, also known as a Soil Health Test, to gauge their overall progress, Garber says. The assay takes an integrated approach using chemical and biological data.
The outcome is a soil health score of 1 to 50 – the higher the better. It also provides an estimate of nitrogen fertilizer savings via enhanced soil health. Depending on the laboratory, the outcome also may include cover crop recommendations.
Attention to detail
As part of their rotation, rice fields are flooded shortly after harvest for crawfish production during the winter. The crustaceans not only provide an income stream in the rice off-season but also help recycle left-over plant residue, leaving the field nearly ready to plant the following spring.
A silver Gleaner combine, a machine more common in the Midwest than in the Ricebelt, is a fixture in the Durand’s fields during harvest. When asked about their choice, Jeff was quick to explain the Gleaner had more horsepower per pound of machine, making it lighter weight and better suited for typical South Louisiana wet harvest conditions.
They also use a Shelbourne Reynolds stripper header that removes the grain and leaves the straw standing. Not only does this type of header speed harvest, but it also prevents floating mats of loose straw that can occur as crawfish ponds are flooded after harvest. The floating organic material can become a problem as it decomposes and robs crawfish ponds of oxygen, Garber says.
The Durands have added tracks not just to their combine but also to their tractors for better traction and to reduce rutting and compaction in wet fields.
Drains in fields not destined for crawfish are boarded up after harvest to catch natural rain during the fall and winter to provide waterfowl habitat. Much like crawfish, waterfowl feed on left-over rice and help with straw decomposition.
The Durands strive for a no-till system where they don’t have to do any deep cultivation to prepare fields for planting between rice crops. If need be, they may run a diamond chain harrow in the field to smooth the soil surface.
The brothers learned long ago the value of organic matter in the soil after they precision leveled a field that required deep cuts and fills. The following year they had pockets where they had filled in the deep cuts that didn’t produce as well as other parts of the field.
The Durands are still trying to bring that field back to health, but they’ve learned what to avoid.
Now when they level a field, they first remove the first 2-3 inches of topsoil and put it aside — a practice known as double cutting. The Durands then make their cuts and fills and finish by reapplying the topsoil.
Although the practice is costlier, Garber says it helps maintain the productive topsoil.
Slowly, the brothers have picked up nearby ground formerly in sugar cane. Each piece is precision leveled for more efficient flooding and water use.
To help revive the soil and improve organic matter, they plant about 250 acres annually of cover crops that include cereal rye, tillage radishes, berseem clover and hairy vetch in the idle fields.
Garber notes that South Louisiana is behind the Midwest when it comes to using cover crops.
“Cover crops are still very new in the rice and sugar cane area,” he says.
The Durands worked closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to find the best combinations. In turn, Garber learned what seed mixes retailers needed to carry.
One of the challenges remains establishing cover crops during South Louisiana’s frequently wet fall conditions, Garber says.