Brad Koen drove many lonely miles last year — some 1,200 per week. Those miles, driven in a white Extension pickup truck, were in support of the Arkansas rice research verification program.
“By spreading the verification fields out, we're getting good benefits in terms of research, applicable science in different areas and sheer visibility to the farming community,” says Koen, an Arkansas Extension rice agronomist and rice verification coordinator.
Prior to the growing season, Koen finds 10 farmers on 10 different farms in 10 different counties across the state. Up front, the chosen farmers agree to pay on-farm expenses and follow Koen's recommendations to a T.
He visits the 10 fields once a week every week during growing season. The local Extension agent visits the field twice a week — once with Koen.
“We're not looking for a specific field size. Fields normally range between 20 and 100 acres with an average of around 50 acres.
“I'm on a schedule and hit the same field the same day of the week. This past year, I traveled from just south of Jonesboro, as far southeast as Ashley County, over to around Texarkana and back up to Pope County. That's some long hauls.”
The rice research verification program, started in 1983, is funded by the Rice Promotion Board through rice grower check-off dollars.
The program meets several objectives, says Koen. First, it's a way to demonstrate Extension recommendations on a real farm.
“It's very easy to put recommendations down on paper. But until you actually show a farmer that it works in his fields, it's often hard to get the message across. This serves as a transfer of technology.”
Second, while out in the field with Koen, county agents are getting additional training.
“I'm a rice specialist, and I'm walking a field every week with an agent. While we're out there, we're going over every aspect of rice from variety selection all the way through harvest. We even discuss tillage. That helps the agent stay abreast of new findings and possibilities with the crop.”
Third, scientists at the different research stations doing small plot research are given feedback from the “real world.” From research plots, Extension recommendations are generated. Usually those recommendations are very good. Sometimes, however, they need to be tweaked and more rarely a recommendation just isn't feasible for most farmers, says Koen.
“This program is used to verify that the recommendations coming out of the test plots are solid. Sometimes I go back and tell the researchers a certain aspect needs to be worked on. It's a check-and-balance that's healthy for everyone.”
An example of this was some phosphorus recommendations, says Koen.
“In the mid-1990s, we started seeing some sick rice and figured out the problem was phosphorus combined with high pH. We went back to the soil fertility researchers and suggested they look again at the pH and phosphorus. That initiated research, and now we have recommendations for phosphorus in many situations.”
Fourth, the Arkansas Extension Service now has a large database from all rice growing regions of the state. From the verification fields worked since 1983, the database contains economic information, field inputs and all the rest. This is invaluable, says Koen.
“If, for instance, someone asks what's the average amount of herbicide that's put out on a rice field, I can just refer to the database. It's that easy. Our economists also use the economic estimates from the rice verification fields to set up their projected budgets. All of this is tied together.
“We base our returns on what the farmers are actually getting. We have economists that take the average cash price plus the average LDP in September and October and base returns on that price. This year is the lowest I've had to deal with — $3.26 per bushel. Still, all the verification fields showed positive returns even above land cost.”
The yield numbers
Koen has been coordinating the verification program for three years.
“We've made some great strides. We've been in some marginal areas and still managed to set yield records three years in a row. These fields aren't handpicked. I had a field near Texarkana in Lafayette County. We dried 163 bushels off that field, and it was some tough ground. Another field in Pope County — an area that's not big into rice — dried 168 bushels.”
There are several reasons verification fields bring in these yields. Number one is intensive management. By scouting the fields regularly and getting timings right on applications, farmers are setting themselves up for a positive result.
“Timing is incredibly crucial for rice, and it's often hard to be timely, especially if you're farming a few hundred acres.”
Number two, rice breeders have also done a great job with varieties, says Koen.
“We've picked up some high-yielders that we can brag on. Wells, which came out a couple of years ago, is a winner. Cocodrie from Louisiana has been great for us. And there's a new variety, Francis (named after Francis Williams, former head of the Extension rice station in Stuttgart), that promises to be a real winner.”
A case study
Nelson Crow's verification field in Drew County dried 170-bushel rice, and Crow is a happy man.
“I approached Brad because I wanted someone besides the chemical companies telling me what to do. Since we started this, we've probably upped our production 30 bushels per acre across the farm. That's substantial when we're farming 700 to 800 acres of rice. Next year, we'll have over 1,000 acres of rice.”
Crow found that the old way of spreading fertilizer — through the year — doesn't work well on his land.
“Right now, the new varieties need the fertilizer up front. By mid-season we're just about done. We've had Drew, Cocodrie and Wells. We're mostly on heavier ground, buckshot soils, so Cocodrie is what we go with mostly. The verification field was in Wells. I had some Drew that cut 179 bushels,” says Crow.
“I think timing is one of the keys that I've helped Nelson out with. He runs a great operation anyway. But just a little shift in fertilizer applications, herbicides and insecticides makes a big difference,” says Koen.
Nelson has identified heavy soils in a bad blast area. “We had to treat blast in the verification field. That made for a more expensive crop,” said Koen. “So Wells may not be as suitable for Nelson's farm. On heavier ground, shorter-stature plants do well. The new variety, Ahrent, might be a good choice for Nelson.”
Crow's setup is 10,000 acres, of which 4,500 acres is farmed. This year, he plans on having 1,200 acres of cotton, 700 acres of corn, 700 acres of wheat, 500 acres of soybeans and over 1,000 acres of rice.
Crow says the plan all along was to see what Koen suggested in the verification field and apply it across his whole operation. That way, “we get an inside track on chemical usage, what works in different parts of the state, new chemicals coming out. We get information on better rates. For instance, I can say that the herbicide Aim has done wonders for us in combating broadleafs.”
Finding the 10
Koen doesn't have trouble finding 10 verification fields. There's a waiting list of farmers.
“Look, what it amounts to is they're getting a free consultant for a field. And most of the time I end up looking at their whole farm. That's just part of it. We actually schedule some extra time at each place because I just know we're going to end up sitting on a tailgate talking about the rest of their operation. And no complaints — this is a great job and I enjoy meeting, talking and helping people.”