Increased vigor may help revitalize state's production industry HYBRID RICE may be part of an equation to revitalize the rice industry in Texas.

The increased vigor growers can expect from hybrid rice will improve yields and reduce production costs, say officials with RiceTec, a multi-faceted company that produces everything from rice seed for commercial farmers to a varied line of rice products for consumers.

Creating a competitive advantage for rice farmers is basic to the RiceTec mission, says Mary Shelman, chairman of the board. Hybrids that adapt to growing conditions in Texas may be only a few years away, she said.

Shelman and other RiceTec officials discussed the potential for hybrid rice recently at a field day at the company's research facility in Alvin, Texas.

One hybrid rice, XL6, has been released and is currently in production in Arkansas, Missouri and parts of Mississippi. A few Texas farmers may have tried the hybrid, but researchers say it is not as well adapted to Texas growing conditions.

Other varieties expected to be available within two to three years should be better suited to the warmer climate.

"We don't see as great a yield advantage from XL6 in Texas as we do In Arkansas," says John Nelsen, general manager. "But we believe some of our new products will be a better fit. In the meantime, we're working with Texas millers to move some XL6 into the parboiled market.

"Texas farmers need to be aware of this hybrid's strengths and weaknesses." Lodging, for instance, may be more prevalent with Texas' warmer nighttime temperatures during the growing season.

RiceTec hopes products currently in the pipeline show as much promise as XL6 has shown in Arkansas where research and commercial fields have shown significant yield increases with reduced seeding rates and lower nitrogen requirements.

"We recommend about 40 percent of the normal rice seeding rate," says Robin Andrews, RiceTec president. "We see vigorous growth with less nitrogen. In act, we encourage farmers not to over-fertilize."

Technical services representative Van McNeely said 1999 data from Arkansas show farmers yields with XL6 averaged 189 bushels per acre, compared to 142 for traditional varieties. Those yields came with a 50-pound per acre seeding rate and only 75 units of nitrogen.

Another test showed 198 bushel per acre for XL6 yields compared to 157 bushels per acre from traditional varieties.

"Average for commercial fields was 186 bushels per acre," McNeely says.

The advantages come from hybrid vigor, or heterosis, says plant breeder John Mann. "With XL6, we get longer panticles and more seed per panicle. Seed weight also increases in the hybrid. The farmer gets superior yield and economics."

The downside for XL6, other than limited adaptability, is milling quality. "We see a higher percentage of broken grains than in conventional varieties if the rice is parboiled," Andrews says. "Consequently, we're focusing on the parboil niche market for XL6."

Even with the milling discounts, however, increased yield and decreased production costs create an economic gain for farmers. RiceTec officials say the advantage is about $55 per acre.

"Our challenge is to improve the milling characteristics of the parent lines," Andrews says. "We'll work out the genetic problems with milling and lodging."

In addition to reduced seeding rate, lower fertilizer requirements and higher yields, XL6 also shows "excellent disease resistance," Andrews says.

Mann says other products expected to be released within the next two to three years should have better milling qualities, be more adaptable to Texas growing conditions and still provide the yield advantage they've documented in XL6.