For Walnut Ridge, Ark., rice producer Greg Gill, survival in the rice business comes down to four things — the ability to dry and store his crop, not shorting critical inputs, bumping yield with hybrid rice and more than an occasional encounter with good luck.
Note that the price of rice is not a major factor. “We have no control over that,” Gill said.
“Farming is probably the only occupation in the world that for every input we buy, we ask, ‘How much will you charge me?’ And for our price, we ask, ‘How much will you give me?’ For any other business, if something costs more to produce, they just raise the price.”
Gill, with the help of seven full-time hands, produces about 3,500 acres of rice, most of which he is able to dry and store. He also produces wheat and soybeans.
After harvest of the rice crop, fields are usually left undisturbed until January or February and sometimes as late as March, when he burns off rice stubble. If he tries to burn rice stubble in the fall, “a lot of times, we still have stalks standing. If we wait until the spring to burn it, it will have some freezes and thaws on it and it will burn off and leave the ground slick.”
On ground rutted by harvest, “sometimes we run a double roller a couple of times in the winter. When it gets dry enough, we'll disk it and work it two or three times in the spring.”
Next, Gill knocks down levees, scratches them up, and runs his ditches. “At planting we'll no-till with a John Deere air seeder, then pull the levees back in the same place.”
Gill plants 100 percent hybrid rice, including 1,600 acres of CL 729, a Clearfield hybrid. He has steadily increased his hybrid production since the technology was introduced in the early 2000s. He prefers the hybrid's disease package and solid yields.
In fact, the disease resistance is so good that he's not made a fungicide application on hybrid rice in three years. Not making the application more than offsets the higher cost of the hybrid seed. This and the yield bump have provided a more consistent yield for Gill compared to conventional rice.
“We had a field in Wells about five years ago that was sprayed twice with a fungicide for blast. It still had blast and cut 100 bushels an acre. The next year, we planted it in XL-8 and it cut 160 bushels with no fungicide.”
Gill started planting this year on March 26, which is a little ahead of his normal schedule, between April 1 and April 12.
All Gill's mixed fertilizer is applied variable-rate, based on sampling on 2.5-acre grids. For nitrogen, Gill puts out 250 pounds of 41-0-0-4 with Agrotain, a nitrogen stabilizer, pre-flood. “We have a lot of fields that we can't just pump up in a day. Some will take as long as a week on some fields. The Agrotain gives us a lot more flexibility. It really works on our soils.”
Gill will make two additional shots of 100 pounds of nitrogen at mid-season. The first goes out at jointing, followed a week to 10 days later by another 100 pounds. “On lighter soils, the sulfur seems to stabilize the nitrogen a little better.”
Command goes out on every acre. “Command and Newpath (on Clearfield rice) work really well together. That's really all we have to do with Clearfield rice for weed control. On hybrids, we'll use RiceShot, RiceStar, propanil or Facet. We don't have a set program for weed control other than Command on every acre.”
This year, Gill added Strada to the Newpath application on Clearfield rice, “and it worked really well. Newpath is weak on black-seeded weeds, and Strada is really effective on morningglories, coffeebean and indigo. We have a couple of fields that we always have to treat, sometimes twice. This year, we haven't done anything to them other than Newpath and Strada.”
Gill splits scouting duties with consultant Jeff Tomlinson, who checks about two-thirds of Gill's rice crop. “I had never hired a scout, but when I started increasing my rice acres, I couldn't see it all, so I hired Jeff. He's an independent scout. He gives me some good guidance and insight, and with a high input crop, you really need a second opinion.”
Grasshoppers and stink bugs have been major rice pests this season, although so far, only four fields have been treated for the pests. “Actually, we've had less insect pressure this year than in the past. Normally, by this time we have treated every field.”
Gill harvests rice with two John Deere 9610 combines with 25-foot Massey stripper headers. “We're kind of in the Dark Ages on our combines, but they keep holding together.”
Gill's rice yields prior to the advent of hybrid rice were in the 130-bushel to 160-bushel range. “Since we've gone to hybrids, we've increased our yield on every field by 25 bushels to 50 bushels per acre. They've really done well on our soils.”
Gill has storage and drying capacity of close to 450,000 bushels in one location and another 120,000 bushels to 130,000 bushels on other farms. He can usually dry and store about 90 percent of his rice crop.
Gill built his first bin in 1979, the year after he started producing rice, and has gradually added bins ever since. With drying costs at commercial facilities pushing 40 cents per bushel, it's been a good investment. “The most it has ever cost us to dry rice is 7 cents a bushel. The bins have kept me in farming.”
John Fender of Pioneer Commodities, a local commodity office, keeps Gill up to speed on the rice markets. He'll use options to “buy back” the crop after selling if he believes rice is undervalued, but doesn't try to get too fancy. “You can't outguess the market. You have to find a place to get in and try to sell some of your crop at what you hope is a profit.”
To cut as much cost from his operation as possible, Gill shops chemical, fertilizer and diesel prices. “We buy bulk whenever we can to alleviate the costs. I go together with other farmers when we can to get the costs down. But you can't cheat seed, fertilizer, chemicals or water. If you're going to make a crop, you have to put the expenses into it.”
There is one input that Gill can't provide, one that can humble or help the best of farmers — favorable weather. So far this year, Gill has survived a couple of punches, an Easter freeze on several hundred acres of 3-inch rice, along with a very dry growing season. Rice appears to have gotten past both, but Gill isn't claiming credit for it. “Sometimes I think a good rice crop has more to do with luck than anything else.”