Parma and Sikeston, Missouri; Effingham, Illinois
Department of Plant Agriculture

Day 12 - Thursday

Rice and Cotton Production

September 7, 2017 – Day 12
By: Greg Reid, Scott Jefferson, Adam Westerhout, Meghan Hendrikx

In the morning we set out on the bus for a new exposure to agronomic crops uncommon in Ontario agriculture, but very important for the local farmers of South East Missouri. Rice and cotton are grown in Missouri where the soil types provide ideal conditions for the production systems. Due to the unique cropping systems of rice and cotton in Missouri, production is consumed domestically and globally through export to meet consumer demands.

It was incredibly evident that the men that spoke to us about rice today at Wheeler Farms were extremely passionate about the crop.  It was obvious that the men’s lives revolved around rice production in the area. Helping rice producers grow the best yielding and highest quality rice was their goal, whether they were the farmer or a crop consultant advising farmers the best variety of rice to grow and latest technology to obtain this goal.

Rice Production in US

Our first stop of the day was at a local farm where we met Dr. Sam Atwell from the University of Missouri who acts as a regional agronomist and extension specialist. On the farm a variety of crops are grown to follow a rotation to promote soil health and reduce the risk for disease, weed pressure, and pests. On the farm 5,500 acres of rice are produced and were drying down in preparation for harvest. While there are three sizes of rice, short, medium, and large available for growing in Missouri the majority of grain grown in this area is long grain which has roughly a 150 day growing period.
Sam Atwell standing in a field of rice
Pictured above: Our speaker, Sam Atwell standing in a field of rice

Sam said the area is very unique to support the production of rice. Since rice is a water crop, it is necessary for the soil to be flooded or super saturated during the growing season. 75-80% of the region is furrow irrigated which increases water demand requiring substantial amounts to be pumped from ground aquifers. The area is at the northern end of a flat alluvial plain where the Mississippi river is nearby. Sand, silt, and clay deposits occurred many years ago during the glacier melt and offered the unique soil in some fields to grow rice. Clay based soils provide greater water holding capacity to make flooding successful during the growing season where producers will level the land to achieve even water distribution. Being part of the Mississippi aquifer, the area is provided with pure, clean ground water where limestone rock filters water downwards. Sometimes water can be hit in wells only twelve feet down from the surface. Wells in the area have no problem supplying typically 30-36 inches of water per acre over a growing season to maintain an ideal 2-4 inches of surface water for annual weed management and reduce herbicide use. Currently 186,000 acres of rice are grown in the area, but just considering water supply, around one million acres could be grown with adequate water supply according to Sam. The easily accessible water supply allows producers in the area to operate at a lower cost of production compared to producers further south that would have limited water supply and may even be pumping water from 1000 feet below the surface. Since the ground water is so close to the surface, local farmer can face challenges in the spring to get field dry enough to plant. During the winter months, it is common for the water table to rise and cause flooding in the region.

During an average year, the region can expect to see 50 inches of precipitation. This precipitation does not always come at the right time for rice production during the year and cannot penetrate downwards into the aquifer. Sam considers too much water at times of the year to be the biggest problem for producers. The region has developed a system of drainage ditches that can be used at various times of the year to remove water such as during the spring and prior harvest. The drainage ditch system drains into the Mississippi river where the water is taken to the Gulf of Mexico. Ditch waters are monitored for nitrate and sediment levels and producers are notified to adjust nutrient management to avoid runoff. In recent years, drainage pipes were added to producer’s fields to reduce soil runoff and sediment build up in the drainage ditches. Today, ditch waters run clear and runoff nutrients are at a minimum.
Handful of rough rice
Pictured above: Handful of rough rice

In rice production, weed control is very important in producing a good quality crop.  There is different ways of producing rice whether it is row rice or broadcasted rice.  The difference between the two is that broadcasted rice is the rice that is normally in paddies and flooded.  Row rice has the ability to have a lot more weed pressure because it is not flooded.  With a lot more weed pressure, farmers need to go into their fields to spray a lot more, which may cause compaction issues on there heavy clay soils.  This may cause long-term production issues throughout time.  When the fields are flooded, weeds have a hard time surviving through the water. 

Rice producers spend a lot of time and money in making sure that the weed pressure in their crop stays at a minimum.  Farmers and consulting companies at this specific operation go in and scout their fields 22 times a year.  This year-round servicing makes for optimal weed control.  On average farmers go into the fields to spray about 5 times a year, whether that is with a land sprayer or an aerial sprayer.  Integrated Pest Management Plans are involved with every field on this specific farm. 

In addition to weed prevention with scouting, crop rotation, and IPM plans, farmers also use something unique in the way that they minimize their weed pressure.  Farmers use technologies to precision level their fields so that they have different levels of water throughout the field.  The levels can change from 2 inches to 4 inches depending on where in the field they are and the weed pressure.  Technology in terms of breeding is also another way to increase weed control.  Rice varieties have been produced to be tolerant to the agrochemical Pursuit.  Red rice has been a major pest in the rice industry because of cosmetic issues.  People don’t like seeing something that isn’t uniform in their food.  There is nothing wrong with the pest, but consumers won’t eat it if it is in the rice.  The tolerance rice has to Pursuit has given farmers the ability to spray their fields and eliminate the red rice, producing a uniform, high quality rice.

While there is currently no genetically modified rice, University breeding programs are developing new varieties of rice and private companies are developing new hybrid varieties. Although hybrid rice can be known to yield 25bu/acre higher, due to the high cost of seed, roughly $100 per acre greater than conventional and the low margins of production, producers in the area continue to mainly produce conventional rice. When developing new varieties, the industry is mainly looking for disease tolerance to blast and sheath blights, shorter varieties, and always improving yield.

It was incredibly evident that the men that spoke to us about rice today at Wheeler Farms were extremely passionate about the crop.  It was obvious that the men’s lives revolved around rice production in the area. Helping rice producers grow the best yielding and highest quality rice was their goal, whether they were the farmer, or a crop consultant advising farmers the best variety of rice to grow and latest technology to obtain this goal.

This part of Missouri in particular has an interesting economic climate. Two thirds of rice grown is on rented ground which costs around $225 per acre while the other one third can cost as much as $10, 000 an acre for rice friendly soils. The United States farm bill slightly inflates these land prices as the subsidies included in the bill allowed for more disposal income.

Cotton Production in South East Missouri

Pictured above: Boll of cotton

After the rice stop, we set out to see cotton production in the South East Missouri area and learn about where production is today from is long past in American history. The farm we arrived at produced around 4000 acres of cotton and had a John Deere cotton picker outside to show the group different functions of the machine.  The soil was more of sandy silt, which is not the best for rice production due to high water draining capacity, but ideal for cotton production where the beds can easily be made for planting at 48,000-50,000 seeds per acre. Cotton does not have as great water demand as rice, and it typically only irrigated three times in a growing season due to its superior water efficiency compared to rice. Some cotton producers follow a rotation of corn and cotton to manage soil health and disease, however due to poor corn prices some are substituting beans instead.  The particular farm we were on did not always follow a routine rotation program, but felt they were not facing any major disease or management challenges due to the lack of rotation. Some field of cotton on the farm have been in cotton for 20 year and it is not uncommon for producers to go even longer in the monoculture crop setting.

The cotton plant is actually a semi-arid, subtropical, perennial plant, but it is treated like an annual because of the cold winters that America gets.  Because cotton is basically a tree, it needs to get sprayed with a growth regulator so that the crop stays at a manageable size. Cotton is a very high input crop. An average amount of passes through the field with a sprayer is twelve in a regular crop. These passes include applications of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. The largest pest this year for the farmer was spider mites. Some of the main weeds in the crop to spray for are: barnyard grass, sigma grass, and black seed grasses. An additional two passes are required at the end of the growing season in order to kill the crop and have it dry down in order to harvest.

In the days of loose batch cotton pickers, the farm ran four pickers, three dumping wagons, and employed 18 people. After the introduction of the John Deere cotton picker and baler, the farm has cut equipment requirements down to just running cotton pickers and only employs four people today. The same trucks are still used to pick up the cotton from the field and deliver it to a warehouse, or to a gin. The pickers can be 95-97% efficient at collecting cotton in the field at ideal harvest conditions. It is typical for a grower in the area to tow one and a half to three bales of cotton per acre after harvest, which would yield 11,000-12,000 pounds of pure cotton fibre per acre.    
Group learning about the cotton harvester
Pictured above: Group learning about the cotton harvester

               Stripper inside the harvester head
Pictured above: Stripper inside the harvester head

Once off the field, cotton can be stored in a warehouse waiting processing at a gin. Cotton can be store for a maximum of three to four years as long as the bales are tight to avoid taking up air humidity. If too much moisture is taken in during storage, lint quality can decrease by yellowing and other characteristics. At the gin cotton lint is separated from the seed and the lint in cleaned and spun to be later used in manufacturing. The three products from a bale of cotton are cotton lint, cotton seed (used for vegetable oil and animal feed), and gin trash (used for animal bedding). Typically 39% of a bales weight gets turned into raw cotton at the gin and the rest of the bale produces by-products. The current price a producer gets paid is 74 cents per pound of baled cotton. Due to transportation and warehouse storage required for harvested cotton, local basis can take 10 cents off the option price for a producer.

Cotton production is very important in the United States. The U.S. is the third largest producer of cotton worldwide, behind China and India.  Although the U.S. is only the third largest producer, it is the largest exporter of the product. U.S. raw cotton sales are roughly $4.9 billion.  Cotton production in Missouri usually ranges from 8 to 16 million acres grown annually with an average of 11 million acres. This year in particular is slated to be one of the best in terms of yield in decades.

Genetic as well as environmental conditions can greatly effect cotton quality. Current research and variety development is working to improve overall harvest yield, percent lint yield, and nitrogen efficiency. 

Ben holding a cotton plant
Pictured above: Ben learning about the cotton plant

The past two weeks have flown by and we have had a blast! Looking forward to what’s in store for tomorrow!