Rice producer Terry Gray is having a good time on the race track so far this year — to the tune of 175 bushels to 225 bushels an acre. The race track refers to Gray's method of cutting rice, starting in the middle of a rice field and then harvesting in an ever-widening circle. Advantages include no turning at the end of a row and more time per hour harvesting grain.

So far this year, the straight-aways and curves have been kind to Gray.

"Our hybrid (RiceTec) rice yields (60 acres of XL6 and 175 acres of XL 8) "have been yielding from 195 bushels to 225 bushels per acre. Most of it's in the 200s. Wells is running 175 bushels. I've cut some 170-bushel Clearfield rice. On another field of Clearfield, we cut about 150 bushels. But we just bought the field, and we've done some heavy cutting and leveling on it. We're trying to put out chicken litter to bring it back."

At the time of this writing, the Delaplaine, Ark., producer was 10 days into rice harvest and had cut about 350 acres of rice with about 900 to go. If yields continue as they have, Gray could have the best harvest season of his farming career.

"We hope to be drying about 180 bushels (per acre). You can't ask for much better than that."

The year didn't start out with a lot of promise, however. "We had 90 percent of the farm planted by the end of April," said Gray, who also raises 170 acres of soybeans. "It took another three weeks to plant the other 10 percent because it rained the whole month of May."

Rice in one field was completely submerged during a deluge, and Gray had to use a relift pump to augment drainage. In addition, "We had a lot of cold weather early and disease, and our application timing was off seven to 10 days most of the time."

But fungicides kept disease from gaining a foothold and cool weather during grain-fill turned yields around, according to Gray. "Daytime temperatures didn't get much above 95 degrees when the grain was filling out," the producer said. "Nighttime temperatures got down in the high 60s and low 70s. Like it or not, you can do a lot of things to increase yields in a rice crop, but good weather during grain-fill is the most important factor."

That's not to say Gray didn't spare the crop any yield-enhancing inputs. The keys to high yields "begin with good seed and a good stand," he said. "You've got to get it clean and put the fertilizer to it. One of the things we've been missing is that rice needs phosphorus and potassium. I've started putting out a lot more P and K."

However, a well-fed plant will normally produce a lusher plant which is more susceptible to disease under the right conditions. "So you have to put more fungicide on the crop to keep it healthy," he said. "I'm not sure I really get a yield increase with a fungicide. It helps you hold the potential that you have."

Gray discovered the benefits of fungicides in rice several years ago.

"We noticed that where we put out Quadris were usually the best fields we had. Last year, the least difference between using Quadris and not using it was about 12 bushels an acre. And we didn't have a lot of disease last year. In some cases, the difference was as much as 25 bushels an acre."

Gray used Quadris on about 90 percent of his rice ground "at anywhere from 8.5 ounces to 10.5 ounces. On fields with varieties susceptible to kernel smut (LaGrue and the Clearfield varieties), we used 14 ounces of Stratego (Tilt and Gem) spiked with 2 ounces of Quadris."

Gray is in his third year of raising RiceTec's XL6, "which can be a little tricky. You're scared to put too much fertilizer on, but we had one field we didn't put enough on and it was cutting in the 190s. We had another field, I just knew was going to go down all year. We put chicken litter out and fertilized it a little heavier. But it didn't go down and it cut 222 bushels."

Gray is able to deal with a little down rice these days thanks to his John Deere 9650 CTS combine with a Honeybee header. "You have to slow down a little bit to pick up down rice, but it will pick it up. You can also cut beans with the header."

Gray and his pit crew are very happy with racetrack harvesting, which he picked up from Chris and Leroy Isbell of England, Ark. Gray does a few computations to figure out where to start in the center of the field. "Then you start cutting in an oval. You can cut five or six hours, depending on how big your field is and never stop or turn around the combine. Some fields are a little odd, but most fields come out fine."

Gray figures he can cut 5 to 7 acres more per day using the method — "maybe as many as 10 acres a day."

"Once you start cutting in a circle, you won't cut any other way," Gray said. "Your buggy man won't let you for one thing. All he has to do is wait in the middle. He doesn't have to chase over the whole field. He can take the shortest distance to the combine."

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com.