The once-common practice of rotating cattle pastureland with rice fields is still a good idea that makes agricultural sense. Johnny Saichuk, LSU AgCenter rice specialist, told approximately 40 people at the recent LSU AgCenter Master Farmer Field Day that the rice-cattle rotation was once widely used throughout Louisiana.
“That's how our grandfathers farmed here,” said farmer Kenneth LaHaye of Vidrine, La., whose 1,000-acre agricultural operation was chosen by the LSU AgCenter as the area's Model Farm for its Master Farmer Program.
Saichuk said farmers eventually chose soybeans over cattle in the annual rotation with rice.
LaHaye said he grows rice on ground used the previous year for grazing cattle. He said he tried soybeans but didn't have much success, so he switched to cattle to complement his rice crop. Now raising cattle pays the bills, he said, but he still grows rice. “I think rice will make a comeback,” he said.
Stuart Gardner of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service said many Vermilion Parish rice farmers have prospered because they still have cattle. He agreed that second-crop rice makes for good grazing, and it could be used in a custom grazing operation where rice producers who don't have cattle could charge cattle producers 20 cents to 30 cents per day per animal.
LaHaye received his conservation plan from the Natural Resources Conservation Service at the field day to make further improvements on his land.
Water quality monitoring units have been taking runoff samples from his property after each rainfall for a year to see how much sediment, nitrogen, phosphorus and dissolved oxygen is being carried away by the water.
Brian Naquin of the LSU AgCenter's Louisiana Master Farmer Program said several years' worth of samples are needed to determine a long-term picture of what the water contains.
Donna Morgan, LSU AgCenter Extension associate working with the Master Farmer Program, said most of the state's watersheds fail to comply with state water quality standards — but not always because of farming.
She said the Master Farmer Program was developed to improve water quality. Under that program, model farms were chosen to demonstrate scientifically proven best management practices.
“None of our sites is perfect,” she said. “We weren't looking for the perfect farm.”
Morgan said one experiment at LaHaye's farm will determine the effectiveness of a strip of vegetation filtering sediment from runoff water.
LaHaye said he got involved in the Master Farmer program as a precaution, since he thought there was a likelihood of eventual government action. “I think one day it will be a necessity to be a Master Farmer,” he said. “I just thought I'd get out in front of it.”
LaHaye said he quit rotating crawfish farming with his rice crops, because crawfish boats were leaving large ruts in his fields that were difficult to repair. Crawfish boats leave ruts up to 18 inches deep, and the ruts require extra work that still resulted in low spots.
LaHaye said he drill-seeds rice directly into pasture without tilling. He also plants wheat into rice fields to be available for grazing. Sometimes he doesn't harvest a second crop of rice, preferring to leave it as forage for his cattle.
This year, he said, he harvested 55 barrels of rice an acre for his first crop. The second crop yield of 14.5 barrels would have been better, he said, but it was damaged by Hurricane Rita.
LaHaye said occasionally he uses water from his rice fields to irrigate his pasture, but it doesn't seem to make grass grow as well as rainwater.
LSU AgCenter forage specialist Ed Twidwell said seedbed preparation is important before planting grass seed. “A lot of people think you just throw seed out on the ground and you will get a stand.”
Twidwell said a weed called smutgrass is spreading through the state — particularly in areas of north Louisiana where it has not been typical. Methods of eliminating it are limited. “This is one thing I don't really have an answer for.”
The herbicide Velpar can be used, but it costs $30 an acre and requires rainfall to activate it, Twidwell said, adding that pastures sprayed with it can't be used for grazing for 60 days. “I don't see any other product coming down the pike, and I don't know how long we'll have Velpar,” he said.
The next Master Cattle Producer Field Day will be held May 12 at the Vermilion Parish farm of Craig Adams.
Bruce Schultz writes for the LSU AgCenter. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.