Rice production is a lot less chaotic than it used to be for the Thibodeaux Ag Group, in southwest Acadia Parish in Louisiana. And the Thibodeauxs aim to keep it that way.
Several changes in agriculture over the past few years have made the improvements possible, says Ross Thibodeaux. Those include Clearfield rice, which allowed the farm to move from a water-seeded culture to a dry-seeded one, variable-rate technology, which has made applications of basic fertilizer and lime more efficient, automatic guidance, which has reduced chemical use and driver fatigue and hybrid rice, which has increased rice yields on the farm.
Everybody has a job to do on the 8,500-acre rice, soybean and crawfish operation, which receives about 60 inches of rainfall annually. Ross manages the spraying and fertilizer spreading and shares irrigation responsibilities of one half of the rice acreage and the crawfish operation with his father Dale. Dale also handles the books for the farm. Ross’s uncle, Steven is in charge of equipment and the shop, and his other uncle, Randy, manages irrigation on the other half of rice acreage along with handling special projects on the farm. Ross’s grandfather, Emery, is officially retired, but is still involved.
The Thibodeauxs plant about 4,500 acres of rice, which they rotate with soybeans and crawfish. Soybean yields in the low-30-bushel area aren’t exceptional by any stretch of the imagination, but they are a good rotational partner with rice and help them manage resistant weeds. A soybean crop, according to Randy “is better than laying the ground out and burning a bunch of diesel trying to keep the weeds under control.”
Soybeans are harvested in late September or early October. Soybean beds are worked down and any ruts from harvest smoothed down. “We tandem our mulch finisher and our harrower, ditch it and leave it alone,” Ross said. “Where soybeans are produced on flat ground, we won’t plow. We’ll ditch it and leave it.”
All farm operations are aided by automatic guidance, Ross noted. “It’s been a big help on the farm. We plow, plant, spray and harvest with it. It’s saving us a lot of time and money. We have also seen a reduction in our chemical usage, and our employees like it.”
Steven precision levels as much ground as he can in the fall, using two John Deere1814 ejector buckets. “We try to do 800 acres to 1,000 acres a year. If it’s a dry year, we can get more done.”
All fields are put to zero grade, “but we can’t pull enough dirt to make huge 80-acre fields. With only six inches of topsoil, you don’t want to cut too deep,” said Ross, who adds that cut fields are often amended with chicken litter.
Precision leveling “helps with our flood establishment and drainage,” Ross said. “It also helps save time because we would rather deal with four levees in a field than 10 or 11 levees.”
Every four years, the Thibodeauxs will run a Veris rig to map soil type, followed by grid sampling. “We variable-rate our lime on low pH soils to help with the soybeans,” Ross said. “We’re not saving any money. It costs the same amount as putting out a blanket application. But the fertilizer is going where it’s needed, and it’s improving areas where we’ve precision leveled, which has helped our yields.”
On blanket applications of basic fertilizer, the Thibodeauxs use a standard 200 pounds of 0-23-30.
The Thibodeauxs will burndown during the winter months with Roundup and Valor if fields are getting grassy. In January, they will spray Roundup and 2,4-D or Roundup alone. Prior to planting, everything is sprayed with Roundup, and Command and sometimes Firstshot.
Ahead of the drill, the Thibodeauxs will vertical till, an operation which disturbs only the first half inch to an inch of topsoil. “It still qualifies as minimum tillage,” Randy said. “It doesn’t actually turn over the dirt. It warms up the soil a bit.”
“It helps us get in the field a little early,” Ross added. “If you’re no tilling straight into the soil, and it’s too damp, the closing wheels don’t close as well. We feel like we’re getting in there at least two days earlier than we would. It also helps the rice come out of the ground faster.”
The Thibodeauxs plant about 80 percent hybrids, including Clearfield hybrids XL 729 and XL 745. The rest is planted to Clearfield CL111, and about 200 acres is planted in Jazzmen, an aromatic developed by the LSU AgCenter, which will be sold directly to an end user. They plant with a 40-foot drill, a 30-foot drill and a 20-foot drill.
They’ll ditch rice fields, then may flush to get a stand. The Thibodeauxs have 32 sources of irrigation, one with natural gas, 17 with diesel and 14, electric. “We are converting five more to electric,” Ross said. “We’re seeing a big cost advantage with electric and it’s a lot more efficient than diesel.”
Depending on the weather and how the crop is progressing, “we’ll come back with our first shot of Newpath with Prowl,” Ross said. “We’ll flush it, and when it gets big enough, we’ll apply another shot of Newpath with Permit and Londax or Clearpath. We’ll apply 260 pounds of urea with Agrotain using our ground rig. We’ll put on the permanent flood after that.”
They apply 100 pounds of a half and half blend of ammonium sulfate and urea a little after mid-season on the CL 111 and Jazzmen and at heading on the hybrids.
On hybrids, the Thibodeauxs will apply 18 ounces of Quilt at boot split. On Clearfield 111 and Jazzmen, they will apply 18 ounces of Quilt Xcel at boot split, or earlier depending on the disease pressure. The fungicide helps the most on the Thibodeaux’s second crop.
Keeping up with 8,500 acres during the season can be a logistical challenge. The Thibodeaux's use three large white erasable boards in the farm office to record in-season and yearly activities on the farm.
“Before we had this, we would come in the morning and not always know what was going on. In the springtime, it’s always so crazy,” Ross said. “You’re smoking and blowing. We have the information on the computer too, but this is a big help to us.”
Rice harvest will typically begin in mid- to late-July and wrap up by mid- to late-August. They harvest with four Case 9230s with yield monitors. For the ratoon crop, the Thibodeauxs run a flail mower to chop down stubble. They apply 200 pounds of urea and re-flood the fields.
During harvest, the rice is shipped to on farm bins and then dried, and then shipped to Louisiana Rice Mill in Mermentau or Crowley. The Thibodeauxs have the capability of drying a third of their rice crop at one time. They also have an on-farm storage facility.
The Clearfield weed control technology was critical in allowing the Thibodeauxs to move from a water-seeded program to a dry one. “We were planting in the water up until 2002, when the Clearfield technology came out,” Randy said. “That made it easy to dry seed.”
In the process, they’ve cut diesel consumption by half and flying costs by a third.
The dry seeded program is a simpler production program that helps the Thibodeauxs cut costs and stay in control of a lot of acres. In a region where hot, humid summers and 60 inches of annual rainfall are the norm, this can sometime be a moving target. “But we always find a way to make it work,” Randy said.