Grower seeking formula for survival

"Companies are not there yet, but they're making strides," Hlavinka says, "especially with yield. In 1990, 40 barrels per acre was good production. Now, 50 barrels is a benchmark. Our expectations are rising."

He says rice and cotton farmers produce for loan value. "As long as we do that, we have to make quality and we have to make the pounds. We've also got to learn how to put the crop in cheaper."

He's made some strides himself in that regard.

"The biggest change we've made is switching to minimum-till rice," he says. "We make fewer trips across the fields and save fuel and labor. We did not plant a single acre in conventional rice in 2002."

Brian Hlavinka, a distant cousin, is Ken's agronomist. He says after they fertilize the land, from late November through early January, "we don't touch it until we get ready to plant."

"We use Prowl early and apply a burndown just in front of the planter," Ken says. "So far, weed control in minimum-till rice has been as good as we got with conventional tillage. And yields actually improved."

The theory works for cotton as well, but tillage may be even less. They do some tillage on cotton because they plant on beds. "Beds are necessary because we have so much rain," Brian says.

They deep till only occasionally. "When we use our laser level equipment, we may scar some acreage and have to sub-soil to break hardpans," Ken says. "It may take two or three years to get land back to its productive capacity after we laser level."

Leveling is worth the wait, however. They save a significant amount of water by leveling.

"Deep tillage is expensive, so we try to restrict it to heavier soils and after we scrape and level," Brian says.

Ken says no-till cotton behind rice also benefits from organic matter.

He says new seed technology should lower costs for rice and cotton. "Clearfield rice will have a place in Texas production," he says. "We planted a little this year in fields with red rice. Clearfield did a good job in those areas."

Ken says rouging out weeds is expensive. "And it's hard to find labor to pull weeds. Herbicide resistant rice will help."

He says the technology is not included in the most productive varieties yet. "But we will get some soon that's suited to our area."

He needs all the help he can get. "Weed control is becoming our biggest challenge," he says. "Grass control is more and more difficult and application procedures pose serious concerns. Subdivisions are popping up around us and we have to be careful about herbicide applications. We sprayed 60 percent of our rice acreage with ground rigs this year."

That's not all bad. "We save money with ground treatments, but aerial application is convenient."

Ken would like to see more stacked-gene cotton varieties as well. "We don't have the right combination of quality and quantity yet, but they're coming," he says. "For now, we mix and match varieties to get the best blend."

He likes Phytogen varieties for yield potential. "And FiberMax pushed the standard up. Now, other seed companies are stepping up and a number of new varieties are coming along that will include quality, quantity and resistance."

He'd like to see a rice variety with better disease resistance. "Fungicides are expensive, about $30 an acre. A good disease-resistant variety would be hot on the market."

He's contributing the process. "We have a 20-acre test plot with RiceTec."

He says RiceTec breeders are looking for hybrids with high yield, milling quality and lower nitrogen demand. "Hybrid rice has a place," he says. "Inputs may be lower and yields are typically better, at least by 10 percent."

Ken also hopes the new farm legislation will help rice and cotton farmers.

"It's still confusing, and we're all going to have to do our homework to make certain we understand it," he says. "But as long as we're growing crops for loan value, we need all the help we can get. And I don't see anything on the horizon that will push cotton or rice prices above the loan."

He plans to alter base on some farms, as permitted in the new law. "I'm optimistic about the program," he says.

In early September, Hlavinka had 350 of his 1,000-acre cotton crop left to harvest. He was expecting to average 800 to 850 pounds per acre, "if the rains stopped soon enough."

He has 1,600 acres of rice and rattoons it to get two cuttings a year. He plants 225 acres of corn and 250 acres of soybeans.

"I figure I ought to make a crop with at least one of them," he says.

e-mail: [email protected]

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