Rice Fields Provide Habitat for Wildlife

Fields Alive with Life in the Summer

By Melissa Moe, Associate Editor

Rice fields provide a great source of food for consumers, but they also provide a great habitat for all kinds of wildlife, especially birds. Matthew Sligar is a third generation rice grower in Butte County. His rice fields are exploding with life this time of year.

“Right now, in the middle of summer, we have ducks that are nesting, so it’s really beautiful to see the baby ducks swimming around in the rice fields. But we have everything from frogs, snakes, raccoons, rabbits, tons of insects that don’t damage the rice. So it’s a beautiful summertime,” he said.

The wildlife that can be seen in the area is very diverse. In the wintertime, different birds come to visit his rice fields. Sligar provides a habitat for migratory birds flying south for the winter.

“After we harvest the rice, we disc and mow the rice straw that’s left in the fields, and we incorporate that into the ground. Then we flood the rice fields, and keep it that way the entire winter. That’s to help decompose the rice straw, and what that does is provide a perfect, natural habitat for those migratory birds, so you’ll see thousands of birds in the rice fields, just ducks, geese, shore birds, gulls, all kinds,” he said.

Watching these birds can be very rewarding. With declining natural habitats for these birds and other wildlife to live in, rice fields are a great place for these animals to thrive.

“It’s just amazing to see the feathers floating on the water, because there’s just so many, and they’re landing. It’s just a beautiful sight, and really rewarding actually,” he said.

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California Rice Growers are Model of Environmental Stewardship

Understanding Water Usage For California Rice Growers

By Brian German, Associate Broadcaster

The amount of rain California received in March has put a hold on rice planting.  In a normal year, California rice growers would be finishing up their fertilizer regimen, getting ready for their April planting.  Luis Espino, a UC Cooperative Extension Farm advisor in Colusa County, explained that the wet weather has caused many farmers to push back their planting schedule.  “We had a lot of rainfall, so the ground is pretty soaked. There are some areas that are still flooded; they still have water in the field. It’ll be a while before tractors can get in there, but I’m guessing that as things dry out, things should start moving soon,” Espino said.

Photos Courtesy of Matthew Sligar of Rice Farming TV

After five years of drought conditions, California finally had a considerable amount of rainfall over the winter months.  Available water supplies are at a much better level than they were in recent years, but there is another aspect that could hurt rice planting this season.  “There’s been a good winter, so they’re going to have enough water to plant acreage as they would on a normal year. What’s not helping is the price of rice. It’s a little too low, and so that might hinder some of the plantings,” Espino said.

The California rice industry is a model of environmental stewardship, working closely with regulatory agencies and conservation groups to ensure that rice production improves wildlife habitats while promoting sound management of water resources.  The rice industry has faced quite a bit of scrutiny over the past few years because of misconceptions regarding flooded rice fields.  It is important to understand that the water used to flood rice fields has more than one use and eventually goes back into the water cycle.  “There is a constant flow of water coming into the field and then leaving so that water is going back to the canal, going back eventually to the river and so it does get recycled,” Espino said.

Rice production in the state has changed remarkably over the past 50 years, with improved varieties, increased yields and improved marketability.  With water on the minds of many Californians, Espino explained some of the reasons why rice fields are flooded for planting.  “It can produce biomass and grain when the field is flooded. Maybe more important than that is the fact that water functions as a herbicide. By having water on the field, you have a way to suppress weeds from growing,” Espino said.

Aside from a small percentage of water being lost to evaporation, most of the standing water in rice fields stays in the overall water cycle.  “The water used in rice fields – before it gets back to the river – is used four times, so in four different fields,” Espino said.

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Early Rain Caused Concern for Butte County Rice Growers

Butte County Rice Growers Respond to Early Rain

 

By Brian German, Associate Broadcaster

 

The Butte County Farm Bureau has been working to protect agriculture’s interests since 1917, thanks in large part to the continued hard work of their members. With continued support, the Bureau is able to advocate for growers on important issues in the community and fund educational opportunities.

Colleen Cecil, executive director of the Bureau, observed the rice harvest looks strong for Butte County rice growers, but a weather-related issue caused a bit of a problem during harvest. “We had some wet weather and then we had a break. Then it was, ‘Hurry up and get it done before the next storm comes in,’” said Cecil.

While the weather was an issue for growers, its impact was minimal. “There was a percentage, somewhere in the teens likely, of rice that was still left out in the field after the last wet weather event [in which] we just got pounded with rain,” Cecil noted.

“Water shortages over the past couple of years had forced many rice growers in Northern California to cut back on overall production. However earlier this year, as a result of improved rainfall last winter, growers went back to planting a more average level of rice. Those fields that had been taken out of production had a good amount of rest, and are now producing nicely once again.”

Though not uncommon, growers may have adjusted their harvest schedule in response to the early winter rain. “While it does happen on occasion, it is not ideal for farmers to harvest rice after wet weather all the time. It goes more slowly, it becomes a little messier, and it requires a transition from tires to tracks on their harvesting equipment. Again, it slows it down,” Cecil said.

“In 2013, the average rice grower in Butte County was producing just under 90 sacks per acre, with each sack weighing the [approximately] 100 pounds. Butte County has close to 88 thousand bearing acres of rice. While the local industry remains strong, early rainy weather can put a dent in production.”

Cecil explained, “It wasn’t that they couldn’t get [the rice] out, it was that the crop wasn’t ready to come out. There was still a tremendous amount of moisture in it and it wasn’t at the right percentage of moisture to take out of the field, so they had to wait.”

Last year’s crop report shows that Butte County’s five most valuable crops were walnuts, almonds, rice, prunes and peaches. The area’s walnut crop alone was valued at just under $241 million dollars. Cecil said this year’s harvest, “the almonds came off without a hitch. The walnuts got tagged at the end with the wet weather, but I don’t think it slowed everybody down,” Cecil said.


Featured Photo: Richard and Laurel Nelson’s Farm, Twin Creek Ranch, on Pleasant Grove Road and Marcum, Thursday, September 29, 2016.
Photo Courtesy of California Rice Commission/Brian Baer Photography

Butte County Rice Growers Association (BUCRA)

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California Rice Grower Demystifies Rice Industry

California Rice Grower Feeds Minds Also

 

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

 

By now, growers have harvested much of northern California’s rice. Most of it is already in the rice mill. While prices were low this year, production has been very good, according to Matthew Sligar, a third-generation rice grower in Gridley, up in Butte County.

California Rice Grower
Matthew Sligar, “How Rice is Harvested.”

“Yes, we just got done with rice harvest. We are chopping the rice straw that is left in the fields. We’re disking it in to aid in decomposition,” Sligar said.

“Then we flood the fields with about 4 to 6 inches of water, creating a natural habitat for migratory birds. We just let the field sit over the winter so the straw decomposes. We work it back up in the spring.”

Northern California rice growers dedicate the winter months, and even the early season months when fields are first flooded, to help migratory birds whose original habitat has been taken over by cities and expanding neighborhoods.

Birds by the millions – including ducks, geese and shorebirds – rest, feed and rear their young in rice fields during their annual migrations. “Our fields turn white like snow from the down floating feathers left behind by birds,” Sligar said.

Matthew Sligar, California Rice Grower and Blogger
Matthew Sligar, California Rice Grower and Blogger

And yet, due to global oversupply, rice prices are trending lower this season. “We had to put our rice into a marketing pool because we wanted to guarantee a home for it,” Sligar said. “We did not want to gamble on the cash market. We haven’t seen the returns yet; however, I got a great yield, and I hear most of Northern California got extremely good yields.”

“Hopefully, that will make up for some of the low price, and we might make some money. When you get a good year, you’ve got to save that money for bad years like this year, just make it through to next year,” Sligar said.

Besides farming rice, Sligar is a cyclist and a social media blogger. He produces great videos on all segments of the rice industry.

“That’s one reason why I started Rice Farming TV because whenever I’d be at a restaurant or some spot socializing, someone will say, ‘What do you do?’ I tell them that I farm rice. ‘Rice? Where do you live?’ I say, ‘I live in California.’ They don’t know that rice is grown in California, but it’s the best,” Sligar said.

 

Click below to view Sligar’s video, “How Rice is Harvested!”


Also, in Sligar’s repertoire is the best way to surprise someone you love in the middle of a busy rice season, in The Mile High Surprise!

 View more videos at ricefarmingtv.com.

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Ag Uses Sound Science to Help Fish

Ag Collaborates to Help Endangered Fish

 

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

 

Don Bransford, president of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (GCID) as well as a member of the State Board of Food and Agriculture, expressed major concerns with the proposed State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) diversion of 40% of the water from many irrigation districts on rivers that drain into the San Joaquin River to increase flows in the Delta to protect endangered fish.

 

“It’s a very difficult challenge because it appears that the SWRCB wants to increase the flows in the Sacramento River. That water has to come from somewhere, and it looks like it’s going to come from the irrigation districts. Unless we can do environmental projects on the River to improve habitat for fish and re-manage our water, we have water at risk,” said Bransford.

Don Bransford, president, Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District
Don Bransford, president, Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District

 

Bransford, who is also a rice farmer, said “Everyone has their own science regarding protecting those species. We’re talking about salmon, steelhead trout, and of course the smelt.”

“The difficulty is, we believe they’re using a lot of old science. There is newer science that suggests there are better ways to manage this. And, if something does not work, then you change. You just don’t throw more water at it,” he noted.

“We think habitat improvements are important in providing refuge for the fish,” Bransford explained. “We’re looking at flushing rice water into the rivers to provide food. Currently, the rivers are pretty sterile because they are just channels now. If we could apply flows from rice into the rivers like we did for the Delta Smelt this summer, you’re providing food for smelt.”

Bransford noted the Northern California irrigation districts work with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to increase flows in certain areas of the Sacramento River at certain times. “Our irrigation district managers work with the Bureau to provide flushing flows on the upper Sacramento.” These flows clean out diseased gravel beds in the absence of natural high water flows.”

“So they used some extra water late March of this year,” Bransford elaborated, “to just turn the gravel over to freshen it up. It did help the fish, particularly the salmon,” said Bransford.


Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (GCID), according to its website, is dedicated to providing reliable, affordable water supplies to its landowners and water users, while ensuring the environmental and economic viability of the region. As the largest irrigation district in the Sacramento Valley, GCID has a long history of serving farmers and the agricultural community and maintaining critical wildlife habitat. The District fulfills its mission of efficiently and effectively managing and delivering water through an ever-improving delivery system and responsible policies, while maintaining a deep commitment to sustainable practices. Looking ahead, GCID will remain focused on continuing to deliver a reliable and sustainable water supply by positioning itself to respond proactively, strategically and responsibly to California’s ever-changing water landscape.

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Weedy Rice Challenges Some Rice Growers

Weedy Rice Crops Ups Again in Northern Calif. Rice Fields

 

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

 

In Northern California, rice growers typically prepare to start harvesting in mid-September, but some growers have endured a lot of weed pressure from weedy rice (Oryza), also known as red rice, according to Whitney Brim-DeForest, a UC Cooperative Extension Rice Farm Advisor in Sutter, Yuba, Placer, and Sacramento Counties who focuses particularly on weeds. Red rice is actually the same species as cultivated rice, but it produces far fewer grains per plant and is therefore considered a pest.

 

Brim-DeForest said weedy rice is common in the Southeast, but not in California. “We’ve been pretty lucky in California in that we actually don’t have a big problem with it,” she said. “It’s a big problem down in the southern U.S. and they have been dealing with it in for a long time; but we have had it crop up. I think the last time was in 2006, and we managed to deal with it. It somehow popped up again in the last couple of years, so we’re dealing with it again.”

 

How weedy rice reached California is apparently a mystery. “We don’t really know the source of it, to be honest,” said Brim-DeForest. “We’re investigating that through research, hopefully starting this fall,” she said.

 

Brim-DeForest said growers have few choices to control weedy rice. “Growers that have it will either have to rogue¹ it out, pull it out by hand or sacrifice that field and spray it with Roundup,” she said, “which would kill the rice as well. And, if the rice grower doesn’t know he has weedy rice in the field, it could hurt him later at the rice mill,” explained Brim-DeForest.

 

“Once harvested, the rice goes to the mill. If a certain amount of red rice bran (the outer layer surrounding the rice grain) is discovered, the mill will not accept it and could reject the entire load,” she said.


¹rogue (verb) to remove inferior or unwanted plants

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Weed Control in Rice Fields

Controlling Herbicide-Resistant Weeds in California Rice Fields

By Emily McKay Johnson, Associate Editor

Whitney Brim-DeForest, UC ANR Cooperative Extension rice farm advisor for Sutter, Yuba, Placer and Sacramento Counties in California, currently works in all rice production areas across the state to identify problematic weeds in rice fields.

Given her background in weed science, Brim-DeForest explained California rice growers flood their fields for weed suppression, as well as use herbicides for weed control and management. “I’d say that we do have quite a few herbicides right now. As we continue to get new herbicide resistant weeds every year,” said Brim-DeForest, “we are starting to run out of options, especially for some growers who encounter herbicide resistance.”

Brim-DeForest believes herbicide resistance was first discovered in the early 1990’s, but “has become significantly problematic for growers within the last 20 years. Because of the herbicides we use and the limited number that we have, we have ended up with an increasing number of weeds that are herbicide resistant every year. Since about 2000,  we’ve had a new species or herbicide that encounters resistance every year,” she stated.

Brim-DeForest treats a multitude of weed species in her line of work. “I would say the watergrass species is our biggest problem,” she noted. “We also have a weedy red rice that was discovered in the early 2000s. It is not widespread, but we do have a few fields with it,” she explained.

Featured Photo: Whitney Brim-DeForest, UC ANR Cooperative Extension rice farm advisor.

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Boost in Butte County Rice Production

Butte County Rice Growers and Communities Are Optimistic

By Emily McKay Johnson, Associate Editor

Butte County rice growers are all smiles this year as regional filled-to-capacity water allotments have progressed crop production in a very timely manner. Randall Mutters, the county director of the University of California (UC) Cooperative Extension in Butte County, specializes in rice production.

Randall Mutters
Randall Mutters, county director of the UC Cooperative Extension in Butte County (Source: UCCE Butte County)

Butte County, known as the “land of natural wealth and beauty,” hosts the second largest acreage of rice in California and a population of over 220,000 residents as of 2012. Rice production is imperative for supporting local growers and surrounding communities. Mutters reiterated, “When the agricultural base is doing well, the community as a whole prospers.”

As growers continue to cultivate their rice, businesses and communities in the area are incredibly optimistic. Mutters explained, “I fully expect to have close to 500,000 acres of rice planted this year,” a remarkable number compared to last year’s 425,000 planted acres.

Mutters said, “It’s been relatively warm and dry, with just a few sprinkles here and there, but not enough to really slow down operations. The season is progressing very timely.” Also encouraging to Mutters, is pests that are typically an early season problem, have not been troublesome this year.

The UC Cooperative Extension in Butte County monitors and protects the agricultural industry by offering educational resources to promote technology and other strategies for farmers. Though the price of rice is not very strong, the community as a whole is enjoying their success.

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AFT Research Shows Farmland Conservation can Reduce Greenhouse Gases

A new study from American Farmland Trust’s California Office, titled A New Comparison of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from California Agricultural and Urban Land Use [PDF], shows that urban land uses generate an average of 58 times more greenhouse gases per acre than the production of California’s leading crops.

This means that conserving farmland by preventing its development is an effective strategy for alleviating climate change. The AFT research, spearheaded by Steve Shaffer, AFT’s principal environmental consultant in California, found that emissions from seven crops grown on four million acres of the state’s farmland – including rice, tomatoes, lettuce, almonds, winegrapes, corn and alfalfa – averaged 0.89 tons of CO2 equivalent per acre, while those from residential, commercial and industrial land uses in 13 California cities averaged 51 tons per acre.

“If California farmland conversion could be reduced by half (from 39,500 to 19,750 acres per year), within a decade we would avoid the emission of 55 million metric tons of greenhouse gases,” said Shaffer, “That’s equivalent to taking almost 200,000 cars off the road or driving around the Earth’s equator 5 million times,” he added, noting, “Of course, AFT would like to do even better than that.”

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California Projects in New USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced 115 high-impact projects across all 50 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico will receive more than $370 million in federal funding as part of the new USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).  In addition, these projects will leverage an estimated $400 million more in partner contributions—for a total of nearly $800 million—to improve the nation’s water quality, support wildlife habitat and enhance the environment.

“This is an entirely new approach to conservation efforts,” said Secretary Vilsack. “These partnerships empower communities to set priorities and lead the way on conservation efforts important for their region. They also encourage private sector investment so we can make an impact that’s well beyond what the Federal government could accomplish on its own.”

The RCPP competitively awards funds to conservation projects designed by local partners specifically for their region. Eligible partners include private companies, universities, non-profit organizations, local and tribal governments and others joining with agricultural and conservation organizations and producers to invest money, manpower and materials to their proposed initiatives.

Through the RCPP, partners propose conservation projects to improve soil health, water quality and water use efficiency, wildlife habitat, and other related natural resources on private lands.

Four of the selected projects are connected to California:

1) Expansion of Waterbird Habitat – The current sequence of events for rice production creates a situation where birds are frequently left with abrupt changes in habitat availability. The proposal extends the “watering” season of flooded rice fields beyond just the production phase and adds shallow water habitat in the winter/spring and fall months. This proposal supports the California Rice Commission in expanding the Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program (WHEP) by 50 percent, thus enhancing the wildlife value of 165,000 acres of rice and the long term sustainability of rice agriculture.

2) Rice Stewardship Partnership – The Rice Stewardship Partnership, composed of Ducks Unlimited, the USA Rice Federation, and 44 collaborating partners, will assist up to 800 rice producers to address water quantity, water quality, and wildlife habitat across 380,000 acres in Mississippi, Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas.

3) Tricolored Blackbird Habitat – The Tricolored Blackbird once was abundant in California with a population in the millions. It now has an estimated 145,000 birds remaining statewide, and many predict that it is heading toward extinction. This proposal is a partnership between the dairy industry and conservation groups, with Audobon California as the lead partner, to address the factors that challenge California dairy farmers and threaten Tricolored Blackbirds, with the goal of finding a sustainable solution for management of colonies on farms and saving the Tricolored Blackbird from extinction.

4) Klamath-Rogue Woodland Health and Habitat Conservation – Many at-risk and listed species depend on quality oak woodlands that are threatened by conifer encroachment, densification, and severe wildfires in this project area, covering portions of Oregon and California. Working with landowners, including historically underserved producers, and using a sound, science-based approach, the partners will target 3,200 high-priority acres recently identified in a Conservation Implementation Strategy to preserve, enhance, and restore the structural diversity, ecological function, and overall health and persistence of oak habitats and their watersheds.

A complete list of the projects and their descriptions is available on the NRCS website.

 

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