Changes in Rice Production Mean Longer Days for Aerial Applicators

Rice was introduced into the Carolinas in the late 17th century and has been grown in the United States ever since. Today U.S. farmers raise the crop on more than 3.3 million acres spread among six regions: Arkansas’s Grand Prairie; the Mississippi River Delta; California’s Sacramento Valley; northeastern Arkansas and Missouri’s “boot heel”; the Coastal Prairie of Texas; and southwest Louisiana.

Agricultural aviation is an integral part of rice production in this country, but its role is evolving. Extended growing seasons and new hybrids of rice have made the job more challenging.

Water Grown Crop Requires Heavy Aerial Spraying

Arkansas is the biggest rice producer in the United States. Most of its crop is long grain, with more hybrid varieties coming out all the time. All types of rice are grown with water standing in fields.

“Rice can grow if it is simply kept soaked, but farmers keep it submerged to control the grass and the weeds,” explains Dennie Stokes of Stokes Flying Service in Parkin, Ark. About half of the plants’ three- to four-foot height is covered during its early stages, 5 percent to 20 percent later in the growing season. Keeping the rice flooded is especially critical during the time when the plant begins to form its head.

Agricultural aviation is just as important as water to the rice crop’s success. “About 70 to 80 percent of all rice crop protection is applied by air in Arkansas,” notes George Tidwell of Tidwell Flying Service in Lonoke, Ark.

“Right now, we could not grow rice without ag aviation,” adds John King, owner of King Farms in Arkansas. “Most of the things that we apply to our crops—weed control, insecticides, fertilizers—are applied by air. There are some exceptions; early in the season, before the rice gets very big, you can apply things by ground. But on my farm, at least 70 percent of the inputs are applied by air.”

“The main reason is that the rice is underwater, and that there are very limited options for applying the heavy doses of fertilizer and other things that we need. You could possibly do it with ground equipment, but the equipment would sink in the mud and you would probably get stuck and tear up the crop as it’s going through it—it wouldn’t work.”

Different States, Similar Story

If Arkansas is the rice capital of the United States, the Sacramento Valley is the rice belt of California. The state produces most of the United States’ medium grain rice, and all of its short grain rice.

The biggest difference in rice production in the two states is the seeding. “All of our rice is water seeded,” says Clarence Williams of Williams Ag Service of Biggs, Calif. “They soak the seed for 24 to 48 hours before they bring it to us, then we fly into the flooded field.” Both seeding and fertilizing are done from a height of 35 to 40 feet.

Rice planting season in California extends from around April 15 to June 1. Like their counterparts in Arkansas, California aviators spray herbicides, fertilizers and insecticides at various times on the rice crop.

“We probably do about 75 percent of the fertilizer by air,” says Rick Richter of Richter Aviation in Maxwell, Calif. “There are some ground rigs that go in the rice fields to spray herbicides.” Those rigs date back to the early 1990s, when a herbicide for broadleaf leaves being applied by air on the rice hit the cotton crop hard. “At that time, there were no chemicals for rice on the market here that could be used by air,” he recalls. “Since then we have gotten Superwham or Propanil back with the airplanes in certain areas.

“The airplane is the best value a farmer has,” Richter continues. “The value lies in the fact that it can be done faster, more efficiently, and with less fuel burned, which translates into a better quality environment.” It’s also less expensive to spray by air—about half or 60 percent of the cost of a ground rig for comparable gallonage, he says. “And we can spray 600 to 800 acres a day, whereas with a ground rig if you get 200 you’re doing good.”

That kind of speed can make a real difference for farmers, Richter adds. “Last year we had a real wet spring and all the farmers were worried that they wouldn’t get their rice crops planted. But with the airplane, we managed to do it in record time, so everyone got planted within the windows of opportunity.” The speed of aerial application can also be critical when weeds start growing quickly and a herbicide is needed to kill them before they shade the rice.

Earlier Start Increases Yields

Aerial applicators in Arkansas usually start their rice work with a burn down of the seedbed anytime from February to mid-April. In some areas glysophate is preferred, but others are now using Command, says Stokes. “Arkansas was the first state—and until last year the only state—that could apply it by air. We worked with the state plant board and the University of Arkansas and proved that it could be safely applied that way.”

Rice planting used to start around mid-April, but now it often begins around March 1. “Studies have shown that the earlier rice is planted before the heat of summer time, the better the yield that it can produce,” says Mark Hartz of Grand Prairie Dusters Inc. in Almyra, Ark. The March date also helps reduce water consumption. “The earlier that you can get your crop going before the heading season—when there’s a real use of water—the better.”

Growers put seed in anytime from early March to early June. Rice planting was previously done by air, with planes dropping the soaked seed into flooded fields. This method helped suppress undesirable wild red rice, and is still used in California and in southern Louisiana, where the fields remain wet most of the year. In Arkansas today, however, farmers can more easily drain fields so they use seed drills to plant rice in dry beds.

“If they don’t receive enough rainfall to make the rice sprout and come up, they will run water over the field to allow the rice to germinate, sprout and come up,” explains Wayne Keahey, president of Dirty Bird in Grady, Ark. “Then they’ll allow the water to drain back off.”

After planting there are two more applications of grass and weed killer (usually Propanil). But the pre-planting burn down of rice fields has changed the way that these herbicides are sprayed, notes Stokes. “The use of Command has taken out some of that Propanil application, and we’re doing weed applications later than we used to. Ten years ago, once we got rice to the point where we were putting out the first application of fertilizer and the permanent flood was on it, we did very little in the way of weed control. Now it seems like we’re treating for weeds almost all the way to mid-season.”

Rice fields are flooded once the plants have grown enough to tolerate the constant water. The time varies with rice variety and initial planting dates. After flooding, planes spray herbicides to eliminate aquatic grasses and black weed seeds like hemp sesbania (coffee bean) and indigo. “When the rice is cut with these weeds present in the sample, farmers are docked for having impurities in there, so it’s very important to keep the rice crop as clean as possible,” says Hartz.

Fertilizer, Fungus and Insect Control

Fertilizing overlaps the herbicide application season. “The big part of our life in the summertime is spent fertilizing,” says Stokes. “On a typical day, from May 10 on, we can do anywhere from 300,000 to 400,000 pounds. We use primarily urea but we put quite a bit of ammonium sulfate out in the early months, too. We’ll do two or three applications of the fertilizer and sometimes even four.”

Fungicides may feature in the fertilizer mix later in the season. With its wet environment, rice is susceptible to several different types of fungus, sheath blight being one of the most common. “This is late in the production of rice, when the head is either just about to emerge or has already emerged and the individual grains are filling out,” explains Stokes. “It’s a very critical time.”

Insect pests may attack the rice at several points during its growing season. When the rice is just emerged out of the ground, lespedeza worms can appear and attack the rice seedlings, according to Hartz. “The cure for that is to get an application of fertilizer on and flush across the field. Immersing the crop in water kills them.

“Late in the crop, when the seed head is exposed, we can have a problem with stinkbugs,” he continues. “They pierce the individual seeds and it will cause a blemish, making that seed head less desirable.” Grasshoppers are pests in some areas as well.

Aerial applicators use a variety of products from methyl parathion to synthetic pyrethroid for insect control. “Sometimes when applying fungicide we will also put an insecticide in to take care of the stinkbugs or whatever pests there might be,” Hartz says. Other times the timing doesn’t work out, so the fungicide and pesticide applications have to be handled separately.

Ag aviators complete most spraying for rice by mid August to early September, but in some areas they do one final application at harvest. Rice should contain 14 percent to 18 percent water when it’s cut. “But sometimes certain varieties will take forever to get to that level, so many times we’ll go in with a desiccant—basically sodium chlorate or salt water—and it will dry out all the green tissues and lower the moisture content. They can get into the fields three or four days sooner than they might have done otherwise. When we do that, we know that we’re done with that rice crop,” says Hartz.

Careful Application Is Critical

Ag pilots in both California and the southeast United States are dealing today with several issues that have impacted their work with rice. “The biggest problem that we have is that there is very little difference between the low rate and the maximum rate for products that are coming out on the market,” says Williams. “A low rate may be 12 ounces per acre and a high rate can be 16 ounces. Anything above that can cause harm to the rice.” In the past, he says, the difference between the lows and the maximums could be measured in pints, not ounces. “Our aircraft today have to be very fine tuned; the margin of error is not there anymore.”

Having fields of different crops planted close together also make his job harder. “We’re limited with the use of different products in the areas that we fly because of buffer zones,” he continues. “For example, we cannot use Propanil within four miles of prunes.”

“Propanil is good for rice, but it’s tough on any other crop that adjoins the rice fields,” agrees Stokes. “It’s deadly on soybeans and on cotton, tough on corn and milo, but not too hard on wheat.” Other products used on rice may have no effect on cotton or soybeans, but are harder on sorghum and milo.

The development of rice hybrids has complicated application as well. “Before, if there was another rice field next to you, you didn’t have to worry about it,” says Hartz. Now, however, there are hybrid varieties of rice that can withstand applications of herbicides to kill red rice. “If you’re spraying that type of chemical on one of the hybrid fields, and there’s a field of conventional rice next to it, what you’re spraying to prevent the red rice can kill the conventional rice.”

Earlier planting has caused ag aviators problems, too, since most herbicides can’t be applied when wind speeds are more than 10 mph. “Farmers have pushed the growing season back into what is the windiest time of year in Arkansas,” says Hartz. “In their quest to get better yields, they have made our jobs more difficult.

“There will be a number of times when we just can’t spray for two or three days because the wind is blowing so hard. And every day that you don’t spray, you have more jobs coming onto your schedule. When you’re not taking them off at one end, and they’re still coming in the other end, it causes a great deal of misery,” he continues.

Farmers like to time their planting and fertilizer applications to take advantage of rains. But that means everyone needs spraying at the same time, notes Tidwell. “It’s not uncommon for a farmer to plant 100 to 150 acres a day over 10 days. But if it’s dry when the rice is planted, it has to have a rain to get it up. That means the rice doesn’t come up 10 days apart; it all has to be serviced at one time. And that farmer’s neighbor is planting just as much.”

Keeping customers happy is even more important in an era where very large farms are becoming the norm. “You have to be careful to provide good service to keep your client,” Tidwell adds. “If you lose one of those quarter-million-dollar accounts, you’ve lost a lot.”

All of these factors can mean long days at the hangar when the rice crop needs attention. Some of that time will be spent flying, but many hours will be spent on standby, hoping that the winds will die down enough to permit flying. “If you’re a crop duster, you see every dawn and every dusk,” says Hartz.

Like the farmers they serve, however, aerial applicators understand the importance of what they do. That’s why they continue to put in the long hours needed to protect the rice crop. “This profession is a challenge, but maybe that’s what attracts us to it,” Tidwell says. ♦

Mary Lou Jay is a freelance writer from Timonium, Md.