By Patrick R. Shepard
The first thing Mid-South rice growers need to decide this year is if rice is what they really need to plant. That's according to rice consultant Amy Beth Dowdy, who lives in Dexter, Missouri.
"Growers need to determine if they should grow rice or soybeans in 2012," says Dowdy, who started her rice consulting business, ABD Crop Consultants, LLC, in 1994. "Some landowners prefer rice, but if the ground needs to come out of rice because of a red rice situation or it needs land grading, then soybeans might be the better option this year.
"I only consult on rice, but if it's better for my growers to plant some of their acreage to soybeans, then I encourage them to do so. Like most other consultants, I want to make sure growers are profitable this year, and they will around next year.
"In Pemiscot and Dunklin counties, which have the majority of my acres, I feel the rice acreage will come back up. But as long as high soybean prices hang in there, they won't put in as much rice as they maybe originally planned. It's hard to beat beans even on heavy ground with the commodity current prices. Some of my growers made 60-bushel beans on a few fields last year."
Once growers decide to go with rice in 2012, a critical decision is matching a variety with the soil type and/or situation. "For example, some fields need to be planted to hybrid rice," Dowdy says. "If you have a field that you have trouble watering, hybrid rice will fit better there because it'll withstand stress and mature better on sandy soils than conventional rice. Hybrid rice also has a good fit for fields with a history of heavy sheath blight or panicle blight pressure.
"However, I don't advocate planting the whole farm to hybrid rice. Wells on heavy soils performed just as well as hybrid rice last year. We need a 20-25 bushel yield increase over conventional varieties to offset the seed cost of hybrid rice."
The Southeast Missouri consultant notes that each variety has its place. "That's an even bigger issue this year with the milling quality problem that we've had in some instances for the past couple of years," she says. "Last year, the milling quality was better where I applied fungicides and sprayed stinkbugs earlier.
"I emphasize quality as much as I stress yield. It's great to say I made 200-bushel rice, but what if you end up with poor quality at the higher yield? Compare that to making 180 bushels and getting a higher price because of higher quality. Which puts more in your pocket?
"I had one grower who started planting the last week of April last year and finished before the rains started. He made his best rice crop ever. Afterwards, we reviewed his program and noted that we sprayed stinkbugs earlier and sprayed fungicides on almost every acre, which we normally don't do. The key was timely planting because several neighbors had to wait three weeks to plant because of the early rain."
Dowdy says the more she works in rice, the more she realizes that the flooding date is more important than the planting date. "A late planted crop might catch up some if I push it a little bit and get the flood on it," she says. "If you get behind on your spraying, which is determined when you flood up, you're hurting that rice plant. It might take a week to move water across an 80-acre field in June if it's hot and dry so you're doing without water and fertilizer. It's also difficult to spray June rice with cotton, beans and corn around it. A delayed flood means you're postponing the heading date by starving that plant and making it need and want for something and also compete with weeds. So you've already cut your yield.
"Maybe you can push it a little bit like some growers do in Stoddard and Butler counties by flooding at four-leaf rice. You have to flood up and then drop it—you can't maintain an 8-inch flood on small rice. This method requires more work than just dropping your boards in or setting your gates and leaving it. However, you come out ahead if you push very young rice by making sure it has everything that it needs—water and fertilizer—and you eliminate weed competition."
Dowdy says due to last year's flooding, many growers will step out of their Clearfield rotation. They planted soybeans last year so many will plant conventional rice this year. "If they do, they need to be ready to rogue fields with a history of red rice," she says. "You need to stay on top of your red rice control in conventional rice. Additionally, because of resistant pigweeds, levees will become more of an issue. Where we rotate to beans, we had pigweeds which we can clean up in rice bays but not on the levees unless you spray them."
Valuable Consultant Network
Remaining in constant contact with several other area rice consultants helps Dowdy meet the challenges that her growers face. Three other veteran rice consultants, Tim Flowers, Wendell Minson and David Howard, all live within a 10-mile radius of Dowdy. "We'll talk a couple times a week during the season," she explains. "We have a unique situation where we all share field information to help our growers. For example, during stinkbug infestation last year, we called each other often to see if one was finding stinkbugs or a moth flight that day in the case of armyworms."
Dowdy says farmers deciding to grow rice this year need to become an expert marketer or seek an expert's advice. "With prices as they are, marketing is as important to growers' profitability as what I can do for them," she explains. "You need to figure your breakeven point on rice and if you can't book 100 bushels per acre at that price, you probably need to look at soybeans. Your rice yields will be more than that, but you can market the rest later."
Dowdy grew up on a family farm that her mother and brother farms today. She graduated from Mississippi State University, where she earned her Bachelor of Sciences degree in Agronomy. She worked for Terra for three years while she was in college and when she graduated she worked another four years for them consulting and running a location. She wanted to get out of management and spend more time in the field so she started her own consulting business.