In 2010, rice quality came to the forefront of the industry when the northern part of the Southern rice-production area experienced an extremely hot growing season, and rice quality fell across the board. The USA Rice Federation formed the Rice Marketability and Competitiveness Task Force, which developed a program to evaluate varieties that were currently on the market.
“During this evaluation, we grew 19 varieties in a number of different locations under 11 different environments,” says Dr. Steve Linscombe, senior rice breeder, LSU AgCenter H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station. “We sent samples to the mills where they were all milled identically. The results showed that we had some really high-quality pure line varieties.
“Quality has always been an important part of our breeding efforts. We start looking at quality very early in the breeding process and understand that the varieties we release will be higher quality than others. That’s part of the dynamics of what we do.”
Linscombe also notes that the Rice Research Station now has access to equipment that allows the breeders to run more samples for cereal chemistry characteristics than they could if they were still sending them to the USDA labs, which were located for many years in Beaumont, Texas, and are now located at the Dale Bumpers Center near Stuttgart, Ark.
“Our turnaround is much quicker because we can run samples in house,” he explains. “We also have an image scanner in which we can put brown rice and milled rice. This equipment gives us the total percentage of chalk in the sample, along with the grain dimensions of the rice kernels in the sample.”
Dr. Karen Moldenhauer, Arkansas rice industry chair in variety development, University of Arkansas Rice Research and Extension Center, says, “In my breeding program, quality is as important as yield. If a variety isn’t low in chalk and doesn’t have all the qualities that the mills want, then it will not be released. If you ask Producers Rice Mill or Riceland Foods about the pure lines that come out of the Arkansas program, they do not have a problem with the quality. We also consider disease susceptibility and different maturities, but, to me, quality is the most important attribute.”
Rice breeder Dr. Ed Redona, based at the Mississippi State University Delta Research and Extension Center, says, “For a rice breeding program to be successful, it must be anchored on the demands of the intended markets, both existing or potential. Grain quality traits – physical, chemical and cooking – are primary parameters and determinants of market preferences and consumer acceptability. This market-oriented breeding strategy is what we have adapted in Mississippi.”
Dr. Xueyan Sha is the medium grain rice breeder at the University of Arkansas. He works with long grain and medium grain rice, both Clearfield and non-Clearfield. He views rice quality in general with the same importance as yield potential.
“However, quality is not a well-defined trait like yield, depending on to whom, when or where you are talking,” Sha says. “It generally consists of cooking quality, grain appearance (dimension, shape and chalkiness) and milling quality (milling recovery and difficulty). There are some well-accepted industry standards for cooking quality, grain dimension and shape for both long and medium grain rice. Selection for those quality attributes is given equal importance and simultaneously carried out as selection for yield. For anything beyond the industry standards (extremely fancy looking kernels, for example), I like taking a balanced approach, such as achieving the desired characteristics without sacrificing yield or milling.”