After a 2015 season that left many Arkansas rice producers feeling kicked in the gut, 2016 doesn’t look to offer much relief. Rice looks to be the best smelling pig in the pen in terms of penciling out profitability, but margins are tight there as well. This year we’ll need to make every penny count. That means managing risk. We’re not looking for a homerun this year; we’re looking to cover all the bases and keep the game going.
To manage risk we need to get back to basics. Try to spread out planting dates – planting earlier does produce higher yields but often carries increased input costs along with it. Last season many didn’t get a chance to spread anything out, you either planted in that 10-14 day window or you didn’t plant. Yes those situations happen, but that window happened at the end of April when it was clear we needed to plant and not wait. Right now, while it’s early, you still have to stick with Plan A; don’t jump to Plan B before we even get to A. Reflective of the truly odd year that 2015 was, those who were delayed until almost May in planting frequently had higher yields than those who planted weeks earlier; however, this should be considered a great exception and not the rule. Let’s start by trying to spread out our planting dates a little – especially if you’re going to try and plant some really early. Determine the maximum acres that you would consider planting early and then stick with that number. Remember that the optimum recommended planting window has two boundaries for a reason.
Speaking of seed – just treat it. The use of insecticide and fungicide seed treatments may provide one of the greatest returns on investment in rice production. Based on 200+ observations since 2008, insecticide seed treatments provide a positive return 80% of the time with an average yield increase of over 8 bushels per acre. The average cost of the insecticide is equivalent to a little over 2 bushels – that’s an average return on investment of 6 bushels. Fungicide seed treatments provide a couple weeks insurance against seedling disease with the goal of getting the rice large enough to outrun those diseases for the rest of the season. They’re not going to provide more than 2-3 weeks of protection but are a very cheap and worthwhile form of insurance. Everyone is always looking for that product that will make plants greener, stronger, faster, prettier – well this is it. Don’t spend money on other untested, unproven products this year – spend that money treating the seed with insecticide and fungicides.
We need to treat the seed with both an insecticide and fungicides. This helps maximize our stand uniformity and increases seedling vigor. And we’re going to stick with a good seeding rate – on a silt loam soil start with 30 seed per square foot (seed/ft2) for varieties and 10 seed/ft2 for hybrids. Increase the rate by 10% when planting very early, increase by 20% on clay soils, and increase it if the seedbed is in poor condition. Don’t increase above 50% after all factors are considered – max of 45 seed/ft2 for varieties and 15 seed/ft2 for hybrids. Use the RICESEED program (http://riceseed.uaex.edu) to help with selecting the appropriate seeding rate across a range of conditions.
Fertility programs need to be solid and smart, based on soil test analysis, not chosen at random or reduced just because you think you can get away with it. Nutrient deficiencies are much more costly and difficult to correct in-season. It’s best to avoid issues with P, K, and Zn by having a good fertility program to start.
When it comes to nitrogen, there is NO WAY to put out the season’s needs at planting, regardless of what anyone may try to tell you. Nitrogen put out at planting with your other fertilizer will undergo major losses long before the plants get big enough to take it up. Hopefully we have an easier time getting preflood N onto dry soil this year so we can maximize efficiency. If we reach the point where we can only put it on muddy soil, then up the rate a little and get it out. Do not resort to flying it into standing water – it’s very inefficient and costly and we cannot make up our entire yield that way. When it comes to the midseason N application for varieties, note that the new recommendation is you need to be beyond green ring (internode elongation) AND at least 3 weeks after the preflood N was incorporated with the flood. You have to meet both of these conditions to get the maximum benefit from midseason N.
If you have the watering capacity and the right field conditions, you can use a single optimum preflood (and not even have to apply a midseason application) while putting out less total nitrogen. There’s a spot we can potentially save money, but it’s not for everyone and figuring out if it’s best for you needs a one-on-one conversation – call me. We’ve been recommending N-STaR soil testing for years now and continue to do so – the goal is not to lower your nitrogen rate but to provide a field-specific, prescription nitrogen rate (the correct nitrogen rate).
Herbicide costs are one of the greatest sources of variation in our budgets every year. Environmental difficulties notwithstanding, we need to use preemergence herbicides and get them activated. When those applications begin to break we need to get postemergence applications out on small weeds when the treatment will work best. Results from the Rice Research Verification Program from 2013-2015 show an average herbicide cost of $73.15 per acre. Costs for individual fields ranged from $25 to $137 per acre (none of these numbers include application costs). The point is you can keep your chemical costs down with timely applications using the proper recommended rates. Your goal should be to average less than $100 per acre in herbicide costs, and the Verification program has shown it can be done cheaper than that in most instances. See the 2015 RRVP report HERE. See other past RRVP reports HERE.
Improving irrigation efficiency should be a constant goal in rice production. Land improvements have been one way to improve efficiency but require large capital investments and advance planning. In-season, the use of multiple-inlet rice irrigation, commonly referred to as MIRI, can have a dramatic impact for reducing total water use and pumping time. In order to achieve the greatest benefits of MIRI, water needs to be added to each bay equally and the levee gates set higher so that no water passes over them during normal irrigation. There has to be room above the flood level to capture regular rainfall events without transfer between bays. Extreme rainfall events may cause water loss from the field but are exceptions – the gates should be set at ‘emergency level’ heights to allow water from these events to safely leave the field without blowing levees. There are other alternative irrigation strategies available that have a learning curve attached to them – such as alternative wetting and drying (AWD / intermittent flooding) and furrow-irrigated or ‘row rice’. These also have the potential to reduce input costs and water use but will require a change in traditional thinking and again some one-on-one, field-by-field conversations and setups to get comfortable and reduce the risk involved in the learning curve.
Harvest is a trying time for all and arguably the greatest source of stress during each season. The need to get the crop out of the field timely and in the best condition is the biggest concern after a season of considerations, decisions, and expense. Planting several different cultivars over multiple planting dates allows for the crop to mature at slightly different intervals permitting timely harvest at optimum moisture to maintain grain yield and quality. The use of harvest aids should be done sparingly and only when needed. They are a tool, and as such they can be beneficial when used properly and harmful when used recklessly. When used properly, when rice is between 25 and 18 percent moisture, the drying process is sped up and so is harvest. Do not treat more acres than you can safely harvest before a weather event that will delay further harvest. Most fields will need to be cut within 3-5 days after a harvest aid application. Any longer than that and the grain will likely become overly dry resulting in reductions in grain quality and potential yield losses may arise from shattering.
It’s been written about already this spring but it bears repeating. Keep your eye on the bottom line at all times. If we put out the proper seeding rate, use adequate preplant fertilizer according to soil testing, use multiple herbicide modes of action (and activate them), and use appropriate nitrogen rates and timings, there’s not much else to add that’s going to provide a positive crop or yield benefit. Yes, fungicides and insecticides have their place – when treatment thresholds are met to indicate the need for treatment. Other than that – keep it out of the tank and save your money. Even adjuvants designed to improve the utility of herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides should only be used according to those products’ labels. Any deviation or addition of other products has not been proven to be of any benefit. So don’t do it!
Let’s grow rice for profit in 2016. Make management decisions on a field-by-field basis and avoid making blanket applications of any products to large acreage. The more field-specific and timely our inputs are, the more likely we are to maximize both yield and profit potential. Keep your eye on the bottom line, not just on that yield number. Consult the DD50 Rice Management Program for help with properly timing management for your fields (http://dd50.uaex.edu). For all rice production information visit http://uaex.edu/rice. Call if we can help. See you in the field.