There is an optimistic tone among most California farmers this year. Prices are good for many crops. Many producers are looking at 2004 as a rebound year.

California rice is a crop that has Sacramento Valley producers smiling once again. Rice acreage could be up 15 percent this spring with recent prices 8.50 per hundredweight over government loan.

Ground fallowed last year for water sales to Southern California will be back into production. Water supplies look like they could be the best in recent years with a heavy mountain snow pack. Strong rice prices may take acreage away from processing tomatoes and possible even some of the small cotton acreage in northern California. Land where prune orchards have been taken out may go into rice.

This season is shaping up to be the best since the PIK year of 1983.

Now the challenge will be to take full advantage of strong prices by delivering a high yielding, high quality California rice crop to the dryers.

Weed management will be a key to delivering a quality crop. Keeping unwanted vegetation out of rice fields consumes increasingly more time of farmers. It is now No. 1 management issue for farmers issue because of growing weed resistance to herbicides.

Watergrass, sedge and broadleaf weed resistance has been document to virtually every herbicide available in some — certainly not all — locations. There is only one herbicide where resistance has not been found, propanil. University of California weed scientists says it may be only a matter of time for that one since resistance has been documented elsewhere in the U.S. and the world.

Steve Bickley, manager of the diversified R. Gorrill Ranch Enterprises, Durham, Calif., counts himself fortunate that he has not had to face serious weed resistance problems in the 3,000 acres of rice he farms each year. He wants to make sure it stays that way. He also farms almonds, walnuts and prunes.

Grass or resistance?

“Certainly we are aware of cases where watergrass control in rice was not as we would like it. The question always is is it just late watergrass or resistance? We collect samples where there may be resistance and send them off a lab for analysis. We sent one sample off from last year and are awaiting results,” he said.

Bickley understands that the key to avoiding resistance is to rotate herbicide chemistry.

There are about 20 different rice fields on the Gorrill farm each year. “We have hot had any troublesome fields and so far we have been able to use the same weed program pretty well ranch-wide, but we will not go more than two or three years with the same program,” he said.

“We have been using a combination of Bolero and Regiment for the past couple of years, and it has worked well for us,” said Bickley.

He consults with his pest control adviser, Dave Seeman of Butte County Rice Growers Association in Richvale, Calif. each year to map out a strategy.

Rice weed control is a usually a double barrel approach, said Seeman. It begins shortly after seeding with primarily a grass herbicide and then producers come back four to six weeks later with different herbicide to pick up broadleaves and any missed grasses.

“Most growers have a plan set up that they will follow each year, with an eye toward resistance management. We really have not seen resistance in this area of the valley. We want to keep it that way,” said Seeman.

Recommendations

University of California weed scientists recommend sequential herbicide programs to delay resistance. PCAs called it a double team approach like Bickley's Bolero/Regiment or Abolish and Regiment, Cerrano and Propanil or Grandstand and Regiment. There is also Clincher, Shark, Londax and an old standby, Ordram. However, Seeman said the Ordram is being phased out.

While having so many products to select from can be a plus in staving off resistance, it ups weed management challenges.

“Some of these new products are very selective — like they work only on grasses. You need to be aware of that,” said Bickley.

“You use a highly selective product early and all sudden you seem to be overrun by broadleaf weeds in the second application,” said Bickley. “You think ‘oh my God what is going on,’ but then you realize that when you use Bolero early it has activity in that first application on broadleaves and the new selective grass herbicides may not.”

With the increasing number of options come the challenges of water management. Each product may need different water management.

“I tell Steve what is going on as far as the products he and I decide to use, but I work more closely with his irrigation foreman. He is the guy who you have to work with in getting water off and on a field depending on the water management on the label,” he said. “You cannot expect irrigators to turn water off and on a 200-acre field like a spigot.”

“The last five years water management has taken on much greater significance with these new products,” Bickley said.

“Bolero is a 28-day water hold and Regiment is a contact. Water has to go up and down and you get some fields drier than others,” Seeman.

Bickley relies on aircraft for the first application and uses the farm's ground rig for the second treatment.

Issue minimized

California rice weed control at one point was a controversial issue when herbicides were found in northern California rivers. Bickley and Seeman said the issue has all but gone away because rice growers have been proactive in addressing it.

“The rice commission and other industry leaders did not dig in their heels when the controversy surfaced. They said let's find solutions, and I think we have,” said Bickley. “Growers are willing to comply with regulations and select products that will not cause problems.

“I think all of us recognized that if we did not find solutions, we were going to lose some of the products we had,” said Bickley.

Rice burning is another issue that has all but disappeared from the industry's radar screen. A producer is now allowed to burn only 25 percent of his acreage.

“We sign up for the full 25 percent every year, but that does not mean we burn that much acreage,” said Bickley, who uses burning not for disease control, but to remove trash in fields requiring re-leveling or in some cases to get rid of a troublesome weedy area.

Incorporating stubble and winter flooding has replaced burning and the benefits have been significant. Bickley said organic matter in the soil has improved with straw incorporation.

Probably the biggest benefactor has been water fowl and indirectly rice growers. The industry has been cited for its efforts to increase winter habitat by flooding fields.

“Sure, it costs us money to put water back on the fields, we have come to realize it is worth it,” he said.

“When I was a kid there would be problems with botulism in ducks because they would be so concentrated in fewer flooded areas than are now available thanks to rice field flooding. We do not see that problem much any more,” said Bickley.

“The game and fish people love the waterfowl program, but the duck hunters don't like it. They have to work harder,” laughed Seeman.

That OK with Seeman and Bickley because rice growers are working harder at being good stewards of the land and products they need to produce rice.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com