What a difference a year makes

Sacramento Valley rice harvest

This Sacramento Valley, California, grower, who prefers a stripper header, was all smiles this year as yields were strong and the crop did not lodge.

Just looking at mature California rice fields this year compared to last, you can see one big difference. Most of the rice is standing this year — last season, the situation was just the opposite.

The 2017 rice harvest in California was marked by some of the worst lodging most growers could remember. If they had a field that was still standing, they figured it didn’t have enough of a crop on the top to weigh it down.

Extension experts blamed it on hot weather shortly after planting that caused the plants to grow more rapidly than normal. This meant the plant didn’t develop as much of an internal infrastructure as normal, causing weak stems. As the crop developed on top, the added weight was too much and the plants simply laid down.

Fast forward to 2018, and lodging seemed about average. Growers who preferred to use stripper headers on their combines were back at it, racing up and down their fields.

This year, California rice producers also seemed to have more smiles on their face as they sat in their combines, moving up and down the fields with just the typical breakdowns. As long as they had enough trucks, they could cut beginning when the dew had dried in the morning until the evening, when humidity signaled an end to the day.

Last year, the stripper headers were mostly relegated to the shop because of the widespread lodging. Instead, growers turned to draper headers that could get under the crop to pick it up.

Because draper headers cut the crop closer to the ground, the entire mass of straw and grain must run through the combine to be separated. The straw is spit out the back, with the grain conveyed into the tank. The shear mass of plant material moving through the combine slows the process compared to the stripper header, which simply removes the grain from the straw, leaving the remaining plant standing.

With the severe lodging of last year also came a need for replacement combine parts. Some growers, knowing it was going to be a bad year, stocked up beforehand so they wouldn’t have to contact the dealer as often. But even they ended up having to call for more parts, and some dealers ran out of the most popular – and most damaged – components.

With downed rice, there’s a fine line between running the header low enough to pick up the crop but not so low that it runs into dirt, crawfish burrows or rocks. And last year, many growers frequently crossed that line.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Crop Progress report, the state’s growers this season had harvested about 60 percent of their acreage as of Oct. 14. In 2017 on the same date, they had cut 57 percent of the crop. That compares to the five-year average on Oct. 14 of 68 percent.

As long as fall rains hold off, most California rice producers will be a rock’n and a roll’n and should finish up well before Thanksgiving.