Five miles from the Mississippi River, almost to the southernmost tip of Missouri, Ryan Riley raises rice outside the little town of Marston. His rice may not appear much different from similar fields full of grain, but Riley began looking at the land a little differently about four years ago.
Though he had been raising rice since 1999, new herbicide technology allowed the grower to consider planting “row rice” as an alternative to conventional flooded rice production. Instead of growing in water-logged paddies or pans, row rice is planted in fields similar to other row crops and receives intermittent furrow irrigation.
“This is kind of a new thing,” Riley said last fall as his combine made another pass through the field, the yield monitor ticking upward. “Row rice has made it easier and less expensive for me to get my ground back in shape.”
The Bootheel region is home to the rice industry in Missouri, ranked fourth among the six states where the crop is grown in the U.S. Around 228,000 acres were planted in the Show-Me State in 2020, and the USDA estimates that number to be up slightly in 2021 to 233,000 acres. Neighboring Arkansas is the leading rice producer. Nearly 85% of the rice eaten in America is grown domestically.
Farmers in this area grow medium-grain or long-grain rice using three production methods—row rice, levee rice and zero-grade rice. Deciding which method to use requires careful evaluation of several factors, including soil type and land history.
Aptly named for its planting style, row rice is gaining ground, largely due to the comparative ease of production when matched against the other techniques. While furrow irrigation is a long-held common practice for many producers in this area, applying the method to rice became popular relatively recently. According to the University of Missouri Extension, row rice first came on the scene around 1990, and about 30% of the state’s crop is currently produced this way. Row rice is managed similarly to other grass crops such as corn and wheat.
In prior years, Riley grew traditional levee rice on these same fields. In this more common practice, farmers grade fields to provide a uniform slope, then plant rice seeds in dry soil that is flooded when seedlings reach the first tiller growth stage. Levees are constructed and gates installed to maintain floodwater depths of 2 to 4 inches.
Because soybeans usually follow rice in crop rotation, building levees also requires tearing them down before the next spring planting. Row rice, by contrast, results in less labor and dirt work.
“With this, we don’t have to deal with levees, which saves money on diesel for us,” Riley said.
Growing levee rice requires precise methods of managing land elevation, said Jason Greenfield, MFA district sales manager whose territory includes the Bootheel and some neighboring counties in Arkansas.
“Most of the ground around here is on what we call a 10th slope,” Greenfield said. “These fields are precision-graded to fall an inch in elevation every 100 feet.”
Rice is grown in the flat area between levees in what is called the pan or paddy. According to Greenfield, water is pumped from the top of the field, known as “the crown,” and flows down the gradual slope through a series of levee gates or spillways to “the tail” of the field. Once the rice pans fill with water, growers will keep them saturated from June until late August or September. A few weeks before harvest, the water is drained to allow time for drying before harvest equipment enters the fields.
Rice loves water, weeds don’t
Weed management is one of the primary purposes for flood irrigation in rice, Greenfield explained.
“Pigweed can’t swim,” he joked. “Other than the fact that rice loves water, this type of irrigation serves as a natural weed management system. With row rice, growers have to increase herbicide usage.”
Riley raises roughly 1,500 acres of both zero-grade and row rice, neither of which require the use of levees. He acknowledges, however, that weed control is definitely a drawback to these practices. Palmer amaranth, or pigweed, in particular, is a perpetual problem, and its resistance to herbicides is on the rise.
“Weed control was very difficult in row rice this past year,” Riley said. “The weeds are different in zero-grade rice. With levee rice and zero-grade, you have to watch out for aquatic species of weeds.”
Zero-grade rice is also flood irrigated but doesn’t make use of levees to control water levels. Instead, the rice is grown on a 0-degree slope, meaning there is no rise in elevation. In this system, water is drained by a series of ditches across the field.
“If the ground is so heavy that it’s hard to work, that’s one of the big reasons guys will go zero-grade,” Greenfield said.
Many fields in eastern Missouri counties along the Mississippi River contain a type of soil known as Sharkey clay, also called “gumbo” by many farmers. This sticky clay soil creates a bowl-like condition that holds water in furrow-irrigated and zero-grade fields. It works well for rice but can be tough on the soybean crop that usually follows in rotation.
“I’ve seen farmers who could grow soybeans successfully on this ground, but it’s challenging,” Greenfield said. “You have to be able to flush the water on and off the fields fast, because you can kill beans quickly in standing water.”
Riley said he experienced that situation two seasons ago.
“We planted soybeans four times on some of our zero-grade fields,” he continued. “Every time I finished planting, a rain would come. This past year we got lucky. Even though it was as wet as it was, the soybeans got enough size early on to outgrow the big rains that came later.”
Long record of rice
It’s a trade-off, Greenfield said. Every system has its advantages and disadvantages. And Nick Lepold, a fourth-generation rice farmer, endeavors to try all three types of production this year.
Rice has a rich history both in the Bootheel and on Lepold’s farm. The clay and silt soils in this region make Missouri a competitive place to grow rice. The Missouri Rice Council reports that the first rice field was planted in the state in 1910, and the crop had taken off by 1960. Lepold’s great-grandfather andgrandfather farmed rice together and were among the first in Missouri to be awarded an acreage allotment from Riceland Foods.
“My grandfather would walk the levees every day with a shovel,” Lepold said. “He would check the rice and also the levees to make sure they didn’t have any crawdad mounds or holes in them.”
Lepold farms 1,200 acres of rice, in addition to corn and soybeans, with his father, Jim, in Ripley and Butler counties. The Lepolds grow levee rice and zero-grade rice and are experimenting with row rice this year. They assess soil type and field history to figure out what to plant where.
“Where we grow zero-grade rice, the ground is so low and heavy that it wasn’t efficient for levee rice,” Lepold said. “We’re trying row rice this year in some of our sandier soils.”
Lepold also evaluates fields for previous disease and weed history. He factors in the cost of seed, fertilizer, herbicide applications and water.
“With row rice, a lot of farmers use their own equipment for spraying and applying fertilizer,” Greenfield said, “but in a flood irrigation situation, they may have applications flown on.”
Aerial applications can be costly—sometimes as much as $30 to $40 an acre or even more. Even in his flood-irrigated rice, Lepold uses ground application equipment to pretreat his fields as much as possible. He conserves water when he can for both the environment and his pocketbook.
“I try to be as efficient and use the minimal amount of monetary resources that I can,” Lepold said. “You can always use that money somewhere else.”
Rice can be tough to grow, he admits. It takes considerable specialized knowledge and willingness to put in the time and labor to ensure the crop’s success.
“There are a lot of management techniques and styles, and sometimes you have to use a different one from one year to the next,” Lepold said. “Rice will typically make it in soils where corn and soybeans will not. If you’re able to get your rice out there and get a good stand, you’ve got it made.”
Adoption of new techniques often comes with generational change, Lepold added.
“Everything evolves and changes over time,” he said. “With the internet, we have so much more access to knowledge and research. Just because previous generations did it one way doesn’t always mean it’s correct.”
And, for Riley, that generational change is exactly what he has in mind.
“I have a son who wants to take over the farm,” Riley said. “In the last six years, we’ve gone from farming 3,000 acres to 10,000 acres because we were given the opportunity. That growth has also come with some pains, but sometimes you have to take those opportunities at the time, even if it’s hard or not convenient.”
MFA offers many services for rice growers, including fertilizer, weed control products and scouting services. For more information, contact your local MFA Agri Services location.