Independent crop consulting has been a big business in the South for decades, and that has mainly been driven by farmers needing help with growing cotton; consulting to help farmers grow rice has received much less attention, even though it is no less demanding of a consulting job than for cotton.

Rice consulting consistently difficultRice acres have been at least a third of cotton acres but a little more steady over the years, although 2012 isn’t looking that great. Even with all of the Delta flooding, the most acres planted in the past 20 years were in 2011 with more than 3.5 million acres, according to Department of Agriculture statistics. The most recent estimate for 2012 is 2.56 million acres of rice being planted, or the lowest in the last 20 years. The Missouri bootheel and Louisiana are the states where more rice is projected to be grown in 2012.

That increase in Missouri rice planting is reflected in the acres that Amy Beth Dowdy, ABD Crop Consulting, Dexter, Mo., is handling this year. She added rice acreage from three new farmer clients who normally plant cotton and other crops. She didn’t have to add mileage to consult the new acreage because it was near her other clients’ ground.

“I’ve done this for 22 years. I’ve slowly consolidated my acres to one area, whereas when I first started, it was nothing for me to drive 300 miles a day to get from field, to field, to field to check them all,” she said.

TEXAS RICE

At the most southern end of U.S. rice production west of Houston is where Dan Bradshaw has specialized in consulting rice for 35 years. He is located at El Campo, Texas. It is Texas that is anticipated to have the biggest drop in rice acres of any state this year, but even at that, Bradshaw said, independent crop consultants are in short supply. He said chemical distributor, ag retailer fieldmen have stepped into helping farmers grow rice.

“Our rice acreage is down because of the shortage of water. A lot of our farmers get water to irrigate their crops from lakes in central Texas, and the water comes down the Colorado River and the Brazos River. Farmers irrigate with canal systems that connect to those rivers. It is dry up north and there isn’t much water,” Bradshaw said.

Dry conditions are something that Dowdy is concerned about in a different way. The start of the season is a big reason rice farmers usually have a consultant as part of their management team. Some fields were planted early this year, but much of the seed sat in the soil for at least five weeks without germinating. Farmers relied on Dowdy to tell them what to do next.

“This week (May 3) we are having to flush a lot of rice a second time, and that, of course, is costing the farmers more money just to get the crop out of the ground. So, that is about $10 to $15 per acre for (well pump fuel) that we hadn’t factored in. We had counted on some rain. My decision and the timing pays for me if we are doing it right,” she explained.

LONG SEASON WORKLOAD

Dowdy notes that she checks each of her farmers’ rice fields at least once a week all growing season. It would be impossible for most of her farmers to thoroughly check each of their fields that often because of their large farming operations. “They count on me to find the problems, make them aware of it and help them cure it or handle it myself if possible. If it is simply a blown levee or a well that has gone down, then I can call them,” she explained.

A typical year starts with fertilizer recommendations and seed selection in working with her rice growers. She noted the first six to eight weeks after germination are of extreme importance in making sure the health of the crop is good. “We need to take care of any weeds out there and decide the type and amount of fertilizer necessary before flooding up,” she said. “Rice behind rice requires different fertilizer than rice behind soybeans.”

The next key period is mid-season, which in her area occurs as June ends. “At mid-season, you are determining yields based on protecting the main tiller. And so, if we did our early fertilizer right, we should have quite a few tillers out there. Mid-season you split open the main tiller and you take an average of the field to determine the best time to apply your nitrogen to get maximum benefit. If you miss the timing and apply it too late, it can cause problems of cutting the yield. If you apply it entirely too early then you can cause sheath blight and other diseases because the plant is growing too lush and it cannot receive good airflow,” Dowdy explained.

The third busy period in rice production is that period when disease is expected every year. “It usually starts the last week of July and runs through most of August” for Dowdy. “With sheath blight, once we have it in a field, we can always have it in that field,” she said. As for rice blast, it can be born from the seed or blown in on air currents.

Although the timing is much different for Bradshaw in Texas, his growers also raise dry/drill seeded rice in a similar manner to Dowdy. The water-seeded rice is almost exclusively grown east of Houston, southern Louisiana and California.

SECOND RICE CROP

Bradshaw, too, has always been involved with the management plans of his clients. “It goes from which field will be planted in what crop, to what variety of seed, to soil sampling, and soil preparation and establishing a good seed bed for planting,” he said.

“We have gone into minimum tillage. We plant into a stale seedbed. We use herbicides to keep it clean during the winter, and the farmer can drop right in there and plant early in the spring,” Bradshaw noted.

What adds into making Bradshaw’s rice consulting even more year round is helping growers harvest a good ratoon crop. “A lot of the rice in our area produces a ratoon crop, which is not possible in Missouri and Arkansas. We harvest the main crop, fertilize and flood back up to produce another crop from the same field. By doing that, we are able to dramatically increase total yields.

“You have to manage the main crop well to have good potential for a ratoon crop. Managing for the two crops usually requires an experienced crop consultant because it takes some special skills,” Bradshaw said.

Bradshaw reinforced a rice consultant’s responsibilities when he said, “With rice, many things are interconnected. It is really important to know the next two or three steps ahead because it is an aquatic environment, and we can use water as a management tool to enhance many of our other cultural practices.”