Coming on the heels of the company’s XL6, the first commercially available rice hybrid in the U.S., the new hybrid products — XL7 and XL8 — are demonstrating early maturity, high yield, improved milling quality, and greater economic returns, company officials said on a recent tour of Mid-South grower fields and seed production farms.

And next year, RiceTec hopes to have limited availability of its first hybrid variety incorporating the Clearfield system for red rice control.

XL7, the first U.S.-adapted hybrid in the very early maturity category, is “5 to 7 days ahead of anything in the industry,” said Van McNeely, RiceTec technical services manager at Jonesboro, Ark. He said, as of Aug. 22, several Mid-South fields had already been harvested.

“XL7 won 100 percent of yield comparisons in 2001 farm scale yield trials,” he noted, “showing an average yield advantage of 27 bushels over Wells, Cocodrie, and Drew. In 144 head-to-head comparisons over three years, it showed a 24 bushel yield advantage.”

The variety has an excellent disease package, McNeely said — “probably better than anything in the field today. No XL7 fields needed spraying for sheath blight this season; it was so early, it just outran the disease.”

XL7’s early maturity allows growers to drain fields sooner, freeing up irrigation capacity for other needs, and spreading harvest workloads, he said.

Based on historical data and 2001 university data, the average net benefit for XL7 over Cocodrie was $35-$40 per acre, McNeely said.

XL8, RiceTec’s premium product, has shown a 31 bushel average increase over Wells, Cocodrie, and Drew, and a 38 bushel increase in head-to-head, three-year comparisons with Cocodrie.

“It’s the first early maturity rice hybrid to combine hybrid grain yields with standard milling and excellent standability,” McNeely said. In historical and 2001 university data, it showed an average net benefit over Cocodrie of $40-$45 per acre.

Both XL7 and XL8 are seeded at only 30 pounds per acre for a target stand of 8 to 10 plants per square foot. Although costs for the hybrid seed are incrementally higher than for conventional varieties, Jim Thompson, RiceTec seed sales manager at Jonesboro, says “that cost is made up in the higher yields that provide a big gain in per acre income.”

Nitrogen management is different than for conventional varieties, with 90 units applied pre-flood and 60 units at the late boot to 5 percent heading stage.

RiceTec’s breeding program, according to Mark Walton, director of research, is to develop new hybrid lines that perform better than their parents and better than commercially available varieties.

“Our research focus is on grain yield first, then milling yield, disease resistance, lodging, etc. Over 6,000 hybrids were evaluated to get the six experimentals that are in trials this year.”

Of the 55-person research team at the company’s Alvin, Texas headquarters, 40 are directly involved in breeding and support, Walton notes. “Eighty percent of our research is on long grain, 10 percent medium grain, and 10 percent on specialty varieties for our consumer rice business.

“We have the largest, most comprehensive rice program in the U.S., with about as many breeders on staff as for all the university programs in southern states combined.

The company has field tests at 20 locations in southern states this year and in addition to its Texas operation has research stations in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and South America to allow year-round breeding programs.

Federico Cuevas, vice president and technical services director at Alvin, Texas, points out that the company has 70 years of U.S. rice breeding experience, and “we’re very excited that our products will take rice production into a new era.

“We looking forward to introduction of the Clearfield hybrid, XP701, which allows the plants to tolerate BASF’s Newpath herbicide and will give growers an excellent means of controlling red rice – their Public Enemy No. 1. It has shown equal agronomic and performance characteristics to XL8, our premium variety.”

Jim Thompson said the XP710 and XP711 experimental lines have shown a 10 percent yield increase over XL7/XL8, with a potential additional $45 per acre return. “With a program of our size, we’ve got a number of varieties in the pipeline that show great promise.”

Jim Stroike, vice president and technical marketing director at Alvin, Texas, says if all goes well with this year’s trials and Environmental Protection Agency approval, “We’ll have a limited supply of the Clearfield hybrid available in 2003 and general availability in 2004.”

He said RiceTec is also conducting tests in Louisiana and Texas for ratoon crops with the XL7 hybrid. In ratooning, the first crop is cut and a second crop allowed to grow from that crop’s roots.

“Some university research sites are expecting to top 300 bushels per acre by ratooning,” Stroike says. “This year, fields planted March 1 were ready for harvest July 1 and the second, ratoon crop is now heading. Because of the shortness of the season with XL7, some growers in south Louisiana and Texas are even talking about three crops in one season. The earliness of XL7 might allow a second crop as far up as north Louisiana.”

He said work is also being done at Stuttgart, Ark., planting XL7 after wheat. “We think there’s good potential for wheat/rice double-cropping, and we’re going to continue looking at it.”

RiceTec “has made a great commitment to be the best in the business,” says Jim Thompson. “Everything we do is rice oriented. Our people represent 25 countries and all are dedicated to developing the very best rice hybrids in the industry.”

As of June 1, RiceTec has a new president/chief executive officer, Fred Fuller, succeeding Robin Andrews, who retired after 18 years with the company. Fuller, who recently retired from Syngenta Crop Protection as group vice president, was executive vice president of marketing for Novartis before it merged with Zeneca to form Syngenta. Prior to that, he held senior positions in agriculture and pharmaceuticals with several major corporations.

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com