Harvesters and bankout wagons were bustling around the area over the weekend – a telltale sign that rice harvest has arrived in Colusa County.
Despite planting being delayed by about two weeks in some parts of the county because of late spring rains, the very warm summer temperatures have helped this year’s rice crop to “catch up,” said Luis Espino, a Rice Farm Advisor with Colusa County’s UC Cooperative Extension.
“One thing this season was known for was the very warm temperatures throughout the growing season,” Espino said. “So, even though the planting was sort of delayed… the crop really developed quickly. It caught up – we’re only maybe a week behind normal for harvest.”
While the blistering summer temperatures made for a fast-developing rice crop, the heat may have a negative impact on yields, Espino said.
“Given the year we had with really unusual high heat, this might be a year where yields go down a little bit… maybe 10 percent,” said Espino.
Espino said that there are three maturity groups of rice – very early, early, and intermediate/late. Typically, the majority of the rice being harvested at this time would fall in the very early group. That is the case again this year, although Espino said that harvest has started for some of the early maturity varieties as well, which take about 85 days, on average, to start producing a panicule, or head.
Just because a field has started “heading out” doesn’t mean it’s ready to harvest – farmers make that determination by taking a sample and testing for the moisture content in the grains. The ideal range for most varieties is between 18 and 24 percent, Espino said.
“For harvest, it’s a balancing act… you have that range to play with,” he added. “Depending on which variety you’re growing, we usually say 18 percent is a good moisture to harvest. With certain varieties, you can go a little lower, even to 16 percent.”
Fall outside of that range, however, and there can be serious consequences. If rice is harvested when it’s too dry, the quality of the grain can drop. If it’s too green, farmers run the dual risk of losing some of their yield and paying significantly more at the rice dryer, Espino said.
Harvest is also dependent on the weather. For one, the fields have to be dry enough so that a combine can drive on it without making big ruts.
“That takes probably three and half, four weeks after the water is taken off,” Espino said. “But that depends on the weather, too.”
Essentially, it’s a race to harvest before the rain arrives.
Foggy or dewy weather around harvest time can also complicate things, and have an effect on the quality of the grain.
“What happens is when the grain dries out and loses all that moisture, if we get periods of time where we have a lot of dew in the morning, the dew will rehydrate the grain, and that process of drying and re-hydrating causers the grain to crack and have fissures,” Espino said. “When you go to the mill, you may have more cracked kernels. It’s tricky.”
For the past few years, morning dew and fog haven’t been an issue, he noted. So far, it hasn’t been an issue this year, either.
In addition to the late spring rain and abnormally warm summer temperatures, this year’s rice crop faced a number of unique challenges. Espino said that for the second year in a row, armyworms have been “really problematic.” He said that he had also seen more instances of diseases, especially stem rot – which is caused by a fungus – in some areas of the county. Espino said that the increase in diseases in rice fields may be related to the fact that farmers aren’t burning rice straw in their fields anymore.
“Burning it cleaned up the field,” Espino said. “Over years, there might be continued increases in the levels of disease in the field. We’re getting more and more comments from growers about disease problems.”
Jim Morris, Communications Manager at The California Rice Commission, said that there have been a lot of fields with downed rice this year. The reason behind it, he said, isn’t exactly clear yet.
“There’s a lot of thoughts about why that might have happened, and I don’t think anyone knows for sure. The upside is, it’s a little more labor, but it’s not going to be a huge impact unless we get significant rainfall,” Morris said. “So far, fall has been very cooperative. We have good weather now, so hopefully we should be able to get the crop in without any sort of issue, and that’ll be a great thing.”■