Arkansas rice producer Britt Heien is seeing less weed pressure and better rice yields thanks to his rice, wheat and soybean rotation. But he’s still tweaking it to fine-tune profits.
Heien farms about 1,800 acres of rice, soybeans and wheat in Grand Prairie County, Ark., with the help of two full-time hands.
This season, nearly all his soybeans and rice were planted behind wheat, a practice he expanded when wheat prices rose several years ago.
Heien first tried rice behind wheat four years ago on a 50-acre field close to his headquarters. “After we cut the wheat, we hauled dirt on it before we planted the rice, so it was a late-June planted crop.”
The hybrid he planted, RiceTec’s XP 710, dried out at 151 bushels per acre. “It was the best milling rice I’ve ever had, and it’s consistent.”
Heien went with a hybrid rather than varietal rice “because they’re pretty much sheath blight resistant. I don’t have to worry about anything coming in and attacking late-planted conventional rice.”
The following year, Heien planted RiceTec’s XL 723 on 400 acres following wheat on land leased from Leland and Irene Stratton. “We had extremely good luck with it, 161 bushels per acre.”
Heien expanded his wheat acres to 75 percent of his farm in 2007-08, and to nearly 100 percent in 2008-09, meaning this season, most of his rice and soybeans were double-cropped with wheat.
The season has been challenging from Day 1 for Heien. Early spring rains hurt Heien’s wheat yields considerably. “They were off 35 bushels per acre from what we’ve been used to cutting, which was around 80 bushels an acre. That was a tremendous difference.”
After a rain-marred harvest of his wheat crop in late May and June, Heien had to wait a few days to let fields dry down before he burned off the wheat stubble. As soon as the fire calmed down, he planted XL 723, a long grain, in 10-inch rows with a 455 John Deere drill at 28 pounds per acre. Planting took three days.
One key to wheat-rice is grass control, Heien says. “You have to tend to grasses immediately. If you leave it two to three days, it will get away from you. As soon as we get it planted, we put the Command out. We came back with Grandstand, and that was about it.”
Heien also noted that rice behind wheat “uses a tremendous amout of water, a lot more than full-season rice.”
Lack of water was not a problem for long stretches of the season. “We got planted, pulled the levees and put the gates in. We had 12 to 13 days of good weather where we were burying underground pipe. Then it started raining. We buried a mile and a half of pipe in the pouring rain.”
In some fields, Heien would flood a field, then a 3-inch rain would blow the levees out. “By the time we’d get the levees fixed, we’d have lost half the water, and we’d have to pump back up again. It was one of those years.”
At pre-flood, Heien put out about 200 pounds of urea followed by 60 pounds at 10 percent headed. No fungicide was applied on rice. “That’s one thing I like about the hybrids. You don’t worry about a fungicide application.”
Dwayne Johnson from Stratton Seed checks rice, soybeans and wheat for Heien, “and he does a great job for me.”
Another round of rainy weather started affecting rice again a week before the crop started heading out, Heien said. “It got cool and everything just quit.”
Heien started harvesting his early rice, about 45 acres, on Aug. 26 with a John Deere 9760 STS. But weather necessary for maturing and harvesting Mid-South crop was at a premium this season. By October, by was still cutting his wheat-rice “in the mud and the mess.”
After harvest, when weather and field conditions permit, Heien will run a cleated roller over rice stubble “to clean it up the best we can. Next spring, we’ll disk it twice and float it twice and it should be ready to go.”
Heien has zero-graded or precision graded all but 340 acres. He does the dirt work himself and custom grades for other farmers. Although the custom work does help with cash flow, “I’ve never really looked at it as income,” Heien said. “I just like doing it. I had to learn a different language and terminology, even though it was directly related to farming.”
Heien, who has been farming on his own since 1997, planted all his rice acreage in hybrids this year, but it’s taken a while for him to fully appreciate the technology. The first hybrids he saw on surrounding farms had problems with standability, which Heien didn’t want to deal with. “We would rather cut 180 bushels standing than cut 250 bushels of down rice.”
But as hybrid characteristics, including standability, have improved, Heien started paying more attention. In 2005, Heien planted “quite a bit of XP 710. I liked it. It’s a good, hardy rice. The XL 723 is tough too. It can take abuse, and still yield for you.”
Heien is happy with the performance of his rice hybrids behind wheat, but due to a drop in wheat yield and lower wheat prices to the grower, wheat’s role in the crop mix will likely return to a smaller one in coming years.
Instead, Heien will get back into a rotation program that’s worked well for him — rice, full-season soybeans, and another year of full-season soybeans followed by wheat. After wheat harvest, the ground is summer-worked to get rid of red rice, then goes back to rice.
“We seem to make the most money doing that. We found that if we went back to soybeans instead of working the ground, we end up getting more red rice than we would if we summer worked it. That gets rid of a lot of the rice.
“Then when we put back in rice the next year, the rice makes so much more, plus the ground is a lot cleaner. Plus it requires very few chemical applications to get rid of the grass in the rice.”