Achim Dobermann, deputy director general for research at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI; http://irri.org), and Leigh Vial, head of IRRI's experiment station, begin IRRI Agronomy Challenge 2, the continuation of a special project in which they demonstrate how to grow a productive rice crop in a 25 x 100-meter field on IRRI's research farm.
Commentary from Dr. Dobermann
5 December 2012: A year ago, we grew a crop of rice, hoping to apply good management practices to achieve high yield, high profit, and high input-use efficiency. These are not mutually exclusive goals in modern agriculture. In fact, that's the kind of triple Green Revolution that will be needed to produce more rice in the future, do it in a more resource-efficient and sustainable manner, and thus also make it a more attractive local business opportunity for young people. Unfortunately, in our first attempt, we didn't quite get there. Instead of the 7 tons of paddy per ha we had planned for, we harvested only 5.2 t/ha.
We managed to turn in a profit of US$335 per hectare, but that wouldn't be enough to make a decent living from farming, certainly not in the future. We've carefully analyzed the many reasons for our failure. Some were our fault and inexperience; some were just bad luck, such as poor weather.
Farming is all about continuous learning and behavior change, so we're sure that we can do better. We started talking about the upcoming growing season two months ago because preparing for a crop to grow must also take into account the period before, to get the land into good shape.
This time, we'll grow a machine-planted rice crop because mechanized transplanting is a labor-saving technology that is proven and is also spreading widely now in various countries of Asia, where small entrepreneurs are beginning to offer such services to smallholder farmers. It is a shame we are forced to transplant at 30-cm row spacing, as that is all that is available here currently, but that too is changing and very soon machines with closer row spacing will be required. Row spacing at 20--25 cm would be better. Wet-seeded rice as we tried last year seemed more difficult to manage, so we'll go with a safer bet now.
We will do less intensive and less deep land preparation than last year. All we need to accomplish is to incorporate residue and make the soil soft and level enough for planting. A wet-season rice crop was harvested in mid-October, after which the field was left fallow. We applied glyphosate once to burn down the vegetation cover that had grown since harvest (rice seedlings, rice ratoons, and weeds), followed by a light plowing and harrowing of the field with a 2-wheel tractor typically used by farmers in Asia. As it looks right now, we may only need to do another light leveling pass in about a week to get the field smooth enough for planting. One strategic herbicide application has saved a lot of cultivation. We were just out there and it is an amazing difference from a year ago: instead of sinking in to our knees, we can easily walk through the field. That should make many operations easier for us, and better in quality.
We'll plant earlier than last year, in mid-December, because we know that this typically results in the highest yield potential in the dry season at our location in Los Baños. We don't know what the actual weather will be like, but, based on the historical weather patterns of the past 20 years, that choice of planting date is our best bet. It is looking drier than last year, with the Pacific Ocean in a more neutral weather pattern as opposed to the La Niña event last year. Of course, we also just want to get it done and out of the way before Christmas.
We'll grow two new varieties. One will be a recently released high-yielding IRRI inbred variety. The other one will be a recently released IRRI hybrid rice variety. Why? Because we want to know whether we can get some extra yield and profit by growing a hybrid, a technology that is now also spreading fast in many Asian countries.
We'll make only minor adjustments in our fertilizer management strategy because we think that this component worked quite well last time. And we'll improve water control to have a better chance to do proper water-saving, alternate wetting and drying irrigation if we have less rain.
So, at least in our mind, the plan is clear. The reality will, of course, teach us many new lessons. We'll keep you posted.
International Rice Research Institute
4 years, 6 months ago