As Mid-South rice growers inch closer to another planting window, a handful of issues and new, or returning, varieties are in play.

“Right now, growers are concerned about the cost of fertilizer,” says Chuck Wilson, Arkansas Extension rice specialist. “Rice has an intensive need for fertilizer and with current prices, that makes things difficult. Growers are trying to figure out how to best manage fertilizer — get the crop what it needs but not spend more than is necessary.”

At winter meetings, Wilson has talked “a lot” about the need for potassium fertilizer and the risks of losing yield without the proper amount. Producers may not even see symptoms of potassium deficiency until it's too late.

“A lack of potassium can lead to hidden hunger, and that's rather common in the state.”

Another symptom of a lack of potassium is increased stem rot. Rick Cartwright, Arkansas Extension plant pathologist, “will vouch that stem rot has increased substantially over the last few years across the state. A lot of that is linked to cutting back on fertilizer to make ends meet.”

At the same time, “I'm hearing potassium fertilizer is running $400 per ton. Growers will spend more money on fertilizer this year than they ever have. It isn't just one nutrient — nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus all are more expensive. Now, fertilizer is the most expensive input in the crop.”

While producers' desire to cut input costs is understandable, “they need to maintain a good soil sampling program and not cut back fertilizer. Fertilizer is critical in making a crop.”

New varieties

This year, two new rice varieties have been released by the LSU AgCenter: Catahoula and Neptune.

Catahoula is a conventional long grain. “It's a typical Louisiana plant type as a semi-dwarf,” says Steve Linscombe, a rice breeder and the LSU AgCenter's regional director for southwestern Louisiana. “In appearance, it's most similar to Cocodrie, with the same height. It will be two or three days earlier, though.”

Catahoula has shown a consistent yield advantage over Cocodrie and Cheniere, and it has good milling quality. “We've submitted samples to many mills, and they think it'll be a good-quality variety.”

Catahoula isn't resistant to sheath blight — “it's like Cheniere in susceptibility. While it was hot, Cheniere had the reputation of being a little less susceptible than Cocodrie or Cypress.

“Catahoula does have good resistance to our predominant races of blast disease. One of the parents of Catahoula was the old Arkansas variety Drew. Drew had a very good blast resistance package, and we think the same level of resistance is in Catahoula.”

Foundation seed of Catahoula went quickly. Linscombe says there has been much interest in the variety outside the state.

The second new LSU variety, Neptune, is a medium-grain. “It's also a semi-dwarf with very good yield potential, much like Jupiter, released a few years ago. Neptune has a bigger, bolder grain than Jupiter, though. The grain is more similar to Bengal. It has a nice appearance with low chalk.”

Neptune has very good blast resistance and it will “have a place in Southern fields. The foundation seed of Neptune also went very quickly.”

Cheniere

While Arkansas still has restrictions on the variety (see http://deltafarmpress.com/rice/071120-seed-regulations/index.html), Cheniere will be readily available in Louisiana this year.

“We estimate — between certified and registered seed — if everything passes inspection, based on the number of certified acres we had in 2007, there should be 60,000 to 70,000 acres worth of Cheniere seed for 2008 production,” says Linscombe.

After rigorous testing and a stringent clean-up program, Cheniere seed is free of any “adventitious presence” of the LibertyLink traits discovered in late summer 2006.

“The reason we have this much Cheniere available is the (GM) problem originated with the 2003 foundation seed we had here at the (Crowley, La.) research station. Our 2005 foundation seed was found to be free of the (GM) presence. So, even in 2006, there was clean, registered seed. That 2006 registered seed was planted to produce certified seed in 2007.”

Having just been through many winter grower meetings, Linscombe says interest in Cheniere remains high. He says the variety continues to have “a lot of advantages. Without the (GM) issue in 2006, I think Cheniere would've been our leading variety in 2007.”

Wells

Meanwhile, Wells, an Arkansas variety, has a problem of a different sort. In a few cases, “long-grain red rice has been found in Wells certified seed samples,” says Wilson. “The University of Arkansas first detected some long-grain red in some cleanings from 2005. They conducted DNA analysis and other tests and confirmed it's a mutation of Wells.”

The mutation “is a Wells-type rice except that it has a pigmented seed coat. It looks like Wells. It isn't the weedy-type red rice that has a large degree of shattering.”

Subsequent testing of other foundation lots found all clean of the pigmented rice. Because of that, “we believe this (problem) seed will cycle through the supply and not be a long-term issue.”

While unable to be precise, Wilson believes the problem will have been flushed from Wells by 2009. “The only people that still have any of the seed lingering are those that may save seed from this year to next.”

Wilson says the problem is at very low concentrations. “In the foundation seed, we're talking about 125 seed out of 2,500 bushels of rice. That's a very small amount. The numbers I've heard from the Arkansas State Plant Board is a single problem grain in a 5-pound sample in about 20 percent of the submitted samples. So, they've found it at a slightly higher concentration. It has not been detected in registered seed samples.”

However, even at that level, “it shouldn't be enough to get mills excited. It certainly isn't enough to drop it a grade by USDA standards.”

The mutation was found strictly in the 2005 seed? “Yes, out of the 2005 foundation seed.”

Has Wilson heard of a similar incident with mutations? “First-hand knowledge, no. But breeders tell me it has happened before. The pigmentation change is comparable to an albino gene showing up in an animal. It's sort of the same mutation. You see an albino very rarely — certainly only occasionally.”

What is Wilson's advice to farmers wanting to plant Wells? “The Plant Board is treating this situation just like any other red rice. The samples coming back must be re-cleaned and approved. Most importantly, seed samples must be red rice-free to be sold. If the Plant Board detects it, they'll reject the lot because the state has zero tolerance for red rice. So, if it's for sale, it should be clean.”

Linscombe is very happy rice prices have gone up. On the negative side, however, “there's $500 to $600 urea and whatever diesel ends up costing.”

Another thing that both rice specialists say could impact rice is the lack of soybean seed. “It's incredibly tight,” says Linscombe. “There are people saying if soybean seed is unavailable, they'll go with rice. That's not something we've heard until recently. So the soybean seed situation could actually impact rice acreage.”

Wilson says he's heard the same “and it's a concern. I really haven't gotten a good feel for what the seed supply is. But it appears because of the delayed germination and low vigor of some of the soybean seed available, some farmers are thinking it could be a major issue. If they can't plant soybeans, many will go with rice.

“That'll certainly have an effect on Arkansas rice acreage. Because of that, I'm having a hard time coming up with a solid estimate of what rice acres will be.”

Wilson has been estimating rice acreage will be “flat to, maybe, 3 percent down. But if the soybean seed supply is as poor as I've heard, rice acreage may be up 3 to 5 percent. It's hard to figure in bin-run seed and other factors with soybeans. If the price goes to $13 or $14, farmers are going to look for any way to grow that crop. All these factors are making rice acreage predictions very iffy.”

On a more positive note, Wilson is alerting rice farmers to a pending Section 18 for Dermacor X-100. “That's a seed treatment for rice that will potentially take Icon's place. The treatment has looked very good in trials with activity on lespedeza worms, rice water weevils and maybe even stem borers late in the season. Hopefully, we'll know how the Section 18 turns out (by mid-February). There are a lot of rice producers looking for a product like this.”