Veteran University of California Sacramento Valley rice farm advisor Jack Williams said it is "the most seriously delayed season I have experienced." He has been a rice farm advisor for Sutter, Yuba, Placer and Sacramento counties for more than 30 years.
The 1998 El Nino and 1996 seasons had sporadic rainfall, but some field work went on in between storms. This year, said Williams, continuous storms put a complete stop to ground work for up to a month. Some growers who chiseled fields early saw that work washed out by two to three inches of rain in late April and early May.
"I doubt that 25 percent of the rice was planted by the first week of May," said University of California, Davis rice specialist Jim Hill. "It would take a perfect season to pull out of this with anything close to statewide average yields of the last couple of years."
Growers hurriedly began preparing fields in mid-May, a month late. It was so late many were working fields too wet or reducing tillage operations to get seed planted before the prospects of normal yields completely faded. They knew that they likely will pay later for being in a big hurry, but they had little choice.
Hill said the idea planting window is April 25 to May 20, but a series of late spring rains halted all field work from the first of April to well into May.
"There were a few fields planted early on the west side of the valley in the Maxwell area," said Butte County Farm Advisor Cass Mutters. Several of these had to be reseeded because the seed floundered due to cool weather.
However, most California growers were only getting started with ground preparation by May 15.
"Some growers are resorting to creative techniques because of the wet soil," said Mutters. This includes flooding fields after minimum tillage and seeding with no preplant fertilizer, planning to topdress two or three times starting 20 days after planting.
The lateness of the season had growers trading in long-season varieties for shorter-season ones. A limited supply of M-104, one of the more popular short-season varieties, quickly sold out. The now sandwiched season all but eliminated varieties like M-401 and M-4-02, premium quality long-season rice varieties the California Rice Commission has been successful in growing markets.
"California rice growers have been working hard to develop those premium quality markets. It is going to be tough to meet the demands in the supermarkets and the Asian market this year," said Tim Johnson, president of the rice commission.
"Many contracts for M-401 and M-402 have been cancelled. The 150 days needed for maturity if planted in late May makes for a late October harvest date," Mutters said.
Chris Greer, UC farm advisor in Colusa, Glenn and Yolo counties said some growers in his area successfully seeded these premium varietals earlier. "Most producers want these varieties in by the middle of April. This year it was closer to the end of April and not as much was planted as growers wanted to."
Delay brings questions
As it became apparent planting would be delayed, Greer said growers began inquiring about which short-season varieties to plant and how to stagger them to facilitate timely harvest.
"And, I also had calls from growers concerned with algae," he said. When the weather is cool, seeded rice is slow to emerge. Combine that with pre-plant fertilizer, and algae blooms were a possibility, preventing seedling rice from emerging through the water.
While this season may turn out to be one of the latest in many years for planting, growers are not indicating they will cut back acreage.
As typically happens when there is weather delays, rice prices have strengthened this spring. "I don’t think the weather will impact the projected planted acreage because guys want to plant with prices up for medium grain rice," said Johnson.
However, acreage was expected to be down about 50,000 acres due to water sales to Southern California to make up for the loss of Colorado River water.
There could also be additional flooding in the Sutter bypass that prevents planting in that area if rains continue or the snow melt comes rapidly. The bypass still had water in it in mid-May.
It may be June before California’s entire 2003 rice crop is flown on, which forces growers to look at different growing practices for a significantly shortened season.
Each farm advisor warned growers to reduce nitrogen to preclude delayed harvest.
"Switching to dry fertilizer and using lower N rates are useful strategies," said Williams.
The biggest challenge this season poses is weed control. Many weeds have already germinated and will get a jump on the rice, said Mutters.
Balancing the need to get herbicide on when the weeds are at a most susceptible young stage without damaging the rice could be tricky this year.
"The problem is watergrass may get beyond the susceptible stage before the rice gets to the safe stage of growth," explained Mutters.
"I suspect that there will be a heavily reliance on clean-up treatments around 35 to 40 days after planting," said Mutters.
Field operations have been compromised by growers to get the crop in, meaning many fields were worked too wet and weeds will not be controlled by tillage. Williams was recommending growers consider spraying for weeds, even after the ground had been worked because large weeds may not completely die with tillage.
Working wet soil may just transplant weeds, said Williams, "although it may be unavoidable given the difficulty of getting the soil dry this year."
The "double whammy" of the weed control challenge, according to Hill, is that "the seed banks of resistant biotypes will increase this year.
Only propanil and clomazone, said Hill, do not have watergrass resistant biotypes.
Clomazone was registered for the first time this season. It is being sold as Cerano.
To avoid injury to rice, Williams said Ordram is potentially less injurious and has more timing flexibility than Bolero. "The same is true for Cerano, which can be applied at day of seeding. Given that Cerano is a new material, I suggest reserving it for those fields which have had an opportunity to dry thoroughly. Cerano applied in a wet field with pre-germinated seeds may result in poor grass control," said Williams.
Early applied herbicides still have a role, even though the season is late. However, they may not work as well unless the seedbed is dried out first.
Williams said a backup program would involve foliar materials like Abolish, propanil, Clinchers, which received a conditional registration this year after a couple years of Section 18s, or Regiment.
Timing and possibly rates will be affected if weeds pre-germinated, "but growers will have more flexibility with foliar applications," said Williams.
"We have experience with mid to late June planting and with that yield and quality are significantly reduced," added Williams.