Stuttgart, Ark., rice producers Sam, Will and John Ed Tarkington are facing some tough times this fall. Fuel costs are the highest in history, farm policy is uncertain at best and rice prices are as flat as one of their rice fields.

To overcome what seems to be recurring economic adversity, the Tarkingtons have had no choice but to go with a high-input, high-yield approach to producing rice. Conventional rice varieties like Cheniere and Wells are helping them hit the mark. They are also increasing their acreage of hybrid rice, which has a much higher yield potential than varietal rice.

According to Chuck Wilson, Extension agronomist for rice, University of Arkansas, “hybrids have raised the bar on what we can achieve with yield potential. They also add some good things with their disease package, so fungicide usage is relatively low.

“Clearfield hybrids (which are resistant to Newpath herbicide) have an added benefit because you get a lot higher yield potential than with Clearfield varieties and you are still able to take advantage of Newpath for red rice control.”

According to University of Arkansas yield trials, the RiceTec hybrid CL XL8 averaged 224 bushels per acre across all 2004 trials, compared to the average for all trials of 170 bushels. The highest average for varietal rice was 187 bushels, for Pirogue. RiceTec's XP723 recorded a whopping 288 bushels in a Clay County, Ark., test. The closest varietal competitor in the Clay County test was Francis, at 213 bushels. RiceTec is the only U.S. commercial distributor of hybrid rice.

The Tarkingtons see similar yield differences between hybrids and varietal rice on their Triple T Farms, with the yield bump more than compensating for the higher costs of producing hybrid rice.

The Tarkingtons produce 442 acres of hybrid rice, about 17 percent of the farm's total rice acreage of 2,600 acres. Hybrids include 59 acres of XP 710, 173 acres of XP 723 and 210 acres of CL XL8, all long grains. Varietal rice includes Cheniere and Wells, which have averaged 161 bushels to 200 bushels per acre, placed on the farm's best soils.

As the 2005 harvest was getting under way, the Tarkingtons' hybrids have been averaging 200 bushels to 210 bushels per acre on marginal soils, according to Will. “We are putting them on fields where our conventional varieties have been yielding 140 to 150 bushels, maximum. The hybrid has taken yields that high.”

The Tarkingtons have experimented with rice hybrids since the first commercial rice hybrid, XL6, was released in 2000. XL6 was known for its less-than-average milling quality and tended to tangle. But there has been a steady stream of improvement since.

Today's hybrids “stand up a lot better,” Will said. “We haven't had any problems with lodging. That was a big problem with XL6. And the yield difference between XL6 and the varieties we were raising at the time, LaGrue, Cocodrie and Cypress, wasn't enough to offset the costs of the hybrid.”

There is also a learning curve associated with hybrid technology, which the Tarkingtons have handled nicely.

“The biggest thing was figuring out we didn't need to plant nearly as much seed,” Will said. “When it came up a foot or so apart, we wondered how it was going to produce rice. But every year when it heads out, you wonder if you could fit any more heads in the field.”

Hybrids have much lower nitrogen requirements than varietal rice. In fact, too much nitrogen can lead to lodging. In addition, a foliar fungicide isn't always a necessity. The Tarkingtons applied a foliar fungicide to all their varietal rice this year, but not to their hybrids.

Combining the Clearfield technology with hybrids has provided the Tarkingtons with a way to control heavily infested red rice fields while maintaining high yields. The Tarkington's weed control program for their Clearfield hybrid, CL XL8, consists of Command, followed by two 4-ounce post shots of Newpath. Newpath controls a broad spectrum of grass and broadleaf weeds.

“It has really been shining for us,” Will said of CL XL8. “We've put it on some severe red rice fields. We're cutting it, it's clean and we're getting great grades.”

Hybrid rice will work economically for growers, “if you can get a 15-bushel to 20-bushel advantage out of the hybrid,” Wilson said. “And it may not take that much if you don't need a fungicide application. It's not exactly a straightforward comparison of seed costs versus yield.”

Wilson added that because of higher seed costs for hybrid rice, “some farmers will say they can't make hybrid rice pencil out, while others can.”

Sam figures that seed costs for CL XL8 are $85 to $88 an acre at a planting rate of 30 pounds of seed per acre. “On conventional rice, we plant from 2.5 to 3 bushels per acre. That rice will cost $8 to $10 per bushel, depending on the seed treatment. So that's $25 or $30 an acre for seed.”

There are reduced costs in hybrid rice. “We're also using about $20 less in nitrogen and we don't have to apply a foliar fungicide in hybrid rice, which usually runs $22 an acre.”

That's still around $20 more than what the Tarkingtons pay to produce varietal rice, but a 15 to 20 percent yield bump will offset that. “And if you put these hybrids on marginal ground, you get more of a yield bounce out of it,” Will says.

The Tarkingtons admit it's going to take more than high rice yields to get Mid-South rice producers back on firm economic footing. The biggest problem this year has been high energy costs needed to irrigate rice because of drought. In addition, wind from Hurricane Katrina blew over rice in some fields, which will add to harvesting costs.

Sam did manage to make some wise fuel purchases. “We were watching television coverage of the hurricane and decided we needed to purchase diesel fuel. We got it for $1.96 a gallon. The fuel dealer called us back later on in the afternoon and asked us if we wanted to sell it back to him for $2.20. We saved 20 cents a gallon just from that morning to the afternoon.

“How we're going to keep on going is a difficult question to answer, with talk about cutting our government payments and fuel continuing to go up,” he added. “We don't have anybody to pass these costs to. I can't tell the co-op I need $5 a bushel for my rice.”


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com