In a push to help alleviate continuing water problems in east-central Arkansas, rice breeder James Gibbons is looking at some extremely early rice lines.

One such line, 0701124, is “very close to fruition,” says the rice breeder stationed at the Rice Research and Extension Center in Stuttgart, Ark. “It came out of our early-planting efforts, mainly for water conservation. You’d plant early and, by doing so, the rice crop is harvested quicker. That allows a farmer to save water and also devote more time to his other crops.”

However, by planting early, other issues arise. Obviously, one of those problems is cold temperatures. That’s why “we’re developing lines that are tolerant of early-season cold. It isn’t just cold weather itself that can be a problem, but soil-borne pathogens that occur. Working with plant pathologists, we’ve shown that 0701124 seems to have some tolerance to some of the early diseases, especially pythium.”

0701124 is a semi-dwarf rice similar to Spring, “although it has some advantages over it: less susceptibility to lodging, a bit of a milling advantage, and 10 days earlier than the usual commercial varieties. Although its yields aren’t spectacular, for the short time it’s in the ground it yields well.”

Has anyone seen how planting the line might impact a farmer’s budget?

“Not yet. However, we’ve shown that you can save water by planting early. That needs to have more study but by doing so, you can take advantage of early spring rains. You’re letting nature take care of as much as it can.”

Is the development of the early-season lines a response to the aquifer depletions in the Grand Prairie?

“That’s exactly right. Rice uses a lot of water. Anything we can do — including in the breeding area — to help conserve water is important. That’s true not only immediately but definitely into the future.”

Early planting is also very appropriate for minimum tillage practices. “The producer can prepare land in the fall and in the spring he doesn’t have to work the ground to plant. Instead, he can wait for time when it isn’t wet to just go in and plant.

“You don’t just plant-breed in isolation. The breeder must consider the management systems in use. The most successful plant breeding programs consider the management practices the varieties can be adapted to.”

If the decision is made to go forward with the line, Gibbons hopes it will be available to farmers in 2011. “We have breeder head row seeds. In 2009, it’s imperative we confirm our findings and hypotheses about it with on-farm testing.”

Other lines

Gibbons has other promising semi-dwarf lines — both medium and long-grain — in earlier stages of development.

One line, 0801030, shows good lodging resistance. It’s a regular-season line with good disease resistance.

“This year, it’s shown good yields across the rice performance trials, the first year it’s been in them. It was outstanding next to the check varieties in the trials. The line was up against Cocodrie and Cheniere and did well against them.”

Gibbons is also excited about a medium-grain in early testing. “Of course, at such a preliminary stage of study, it could fall out any time. It might have an advantage in lodging. Actually, it’s one of several medium-grains that are showing good yield potential.”

With any rice, grain quality is super important. But with medium-grains “it seems quality is even more critical because of how it’s used in processing. We have to produce varieties the processors are comfortable with and accept. So these new lines have a ways to go.”

Thousands for one

“There really are a lot of exciting new materials in the breeding pipeline. That may be what every breeder says, but we really have found some very interesting semi-dwarfs that’ll be coming down the line in the next three or four years.”

How many lines does Gibbons actually look at to winnow down to one or two?

“Definitely thousands. In our preliminary yield trial this year we had over 400 lines. We’ll whittle those down next year to, maybe, 100. From there, the number will drop to 20 then to, hopefully, one. It’s a slow process.”

The breeders accelerate the process with a winter nursery in Puerto Rico.

“We’ve got a crop in down there growing, right now. We’ll travel down there a couple of times during the season and for harvest. Sometimes we can get two generations a year. If we do that, the first harvest will be in early January and again in April or May.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com