Significantly higher rice yields, substantially lower seeding rates, reduced nitrogen requirements, earlier maturity — these are advantages Mid-South growers are realizing from plantings of new RiceTec hybrids.

Several thousand acres of XL6, a long grain hybrid rice, are nearing harvest in Delta production areas, along with 133 company and university trials that include RiceTec experimental hybrid lines being evaluated for commercial introduction in the future.

“Hybrid rice offers farmers a way to produce substantially more rice on less land, at a lower input cost than traditional varieties,” says John Nelsen, general manager of RiceTec's Seed Business Unit. “We were the first to bring hybrid rice to the U.S. marketplace, and we feel we're in an excellent position to provide an innovative, valuable technology to growers.”

RiceTec, the outgrowth of a Texas farming operation, is also a leading producer, miller, and marketer of specialty consumer rice products sold in over 20,000 supermarkets throughout America.

“Hybrid rice has offered U.S. farmers a 25 percent to 30 percent yield advantage over the best varietal rices,” Nelsen says. Economic data from 2000 showed XL6 producing an additional $55 per acre in net revenue compared to conventional varieties.

Headquartered at Alvin, Texas, where its research facility and 500-acre research farm are also located, RiceTec's hybrid initiative is global, Nelsen says. “We have a simple goal: We would like to become the best in the world in commercial rice. We think our integrated operation gives us a unique opportunity to understand rice from commercial, developmental, and farming standpoints.”

Acknowledging that other companies have hybrid rice programs under way, Nelsen says, “We believe we're the only one with adapted, inbred lines for the U.S. market at this time, and we believe this gives us a distinct advantage.”

In addition to its Texas facilities, RiceTec has a 150-acre rice breeding station in Puerto Rico and an extensive network of seed rice test locations in the United States and Central/South America, giving the company the capability to breed and test year-round.

Nelsen says, “Some of the things we have coming along are very exciting. I think we'll be offering a medium grain hybrid before too long, and we'll have broad scale tests next year on hybrids for use with the BASF Clearfield technology. If all the performance hurdles are cleared, we could have a commercial Clearfield hybrid in 2003.”

RiceTec has an agreement with BASF for exclusive use of the Clearfield technology on hybrid rice, he says.

Among growers with commercial acreages of the XL6 hybrid this year is Tunica County, Miss., grower Peter Dulaney.

“We've had an almost perfect year for rice,” says Dulaney, who has 180 acres of XL6, as well as 130 acres of trials comparing RiceTec hybrids with leading conventional varieties.

This is the second year he's grown XL6 and says it yielded better than any other variety in trials on his farm in 2000. Van McNeely, RiceTec technical services manager, says it beat other varieties in last year's trials on Dulaney's farm by an average 45 bushels an acre.

“It comes off earlier, and we're very pleased with it,” Dulaney says. In evaluating any new variety, he says, standability during poor autumn weather is important. “That's why we've planted mostly Lemont over the years. But XL6 has done well — and yield is outstanding, with a lot less fertilizer, and earlier maturity.”

Larry Haugen, vice president and production director for RiceTec, says seeding rates for hybrids are “extremely low” in comparison to conventional varieties, with only 35 pounds per acre and 14 seeds per square foot recommended.

“Hybrid vigor gives plants tremendous tillering ability” and stands of only four to five plants per square foot can produce yields of 180-200 bushels per acre, he says. “With conventional varieties, most farmers would replant a stand like that.”

XL6's higher yield, “a much better disease resistance package than anything else out there,” and reduced nitrogen and seeding rates “help us to deliver added value to the rice farmer,” says Federico Cuevas, vice president and development director for RiceTec.

Jim Stroike, vice president and technical director, says RiceTec's hybrid program “puts us on the leading edge in bringing this technology to the U.S. We want to give the farmer a recipe for management in the field that will allow him to achieve maximum production.”

He says RiceTec breeders make more than 3,000 crosses each year, of which about 1,000 show some promise for further evaluation. But only one or two finally make all the cuts and go to the advanced testing stage.

“It takes six to seven years to get from the original crosses to field testing,” Stroike says, “and then another three to four years before we take a hybrid to market.”

While hybrid rice has been available in China for more than half a century and now accounts for more than 50 percent of the 75 million acres grown there, it was not until 2000 that U.S. producers were offered a commercial hybrid, XL6.

In 19 farm scale comparisons last year, XL6 won in every trial, outperforming the competition by an average of 41 bushels per acre, company data show.