Seeding Rice in California

The planes are soaring above our flooded fields. We’re going to learn all about how we plant rice seed here in California. We’ll visit the airstrip and learn how the ag planes are loaded with seed between flights. We’ll even hang off the wing of a plane and get a bird’s eye view of the seeding process. A special thanks to Williams Ag Service. Crop Care by Air! Yes, it’s going to be high flying fun! But first, for those of you just tuning in–you may be asking, “how did we get here, this far along in the planting process?” Well, here’s a rapid fire review of the past several tractor videos, the last several weeks of preparing the ground for seeding rice. Ready? Drain our fields of winter water. Shovel work. Fields dry under the spring sun. Plow chisel, help dry out the soil. Tillage disc, help break down the dirt-clods. Landplane, help level out the soil. Shovel work.

Aqua bar, injects nitrogen 3” deep into the dry, worked soil. Roller, applies a nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium blend to the surface of the soil. Flood our fields with irrigation water. And a whole. Lot. More. Yes, after all the tractor work here we are now. The fields are flooded with irrigation water, about 2 inches deep, and ready to be seeded. That’s right, only 2 inches deep. We don’t want the fields too deep. High water could present potential issues for baby rice. But I’ll explain all that later. Let’s get right into planting rice by airplane. As our irrigation water begins to move across our rice fields we call up our seed supplier and place our order—how much rice seed we plan to plant. In our case our seeding rate is 165 lbs. an acre. Our seed supplier, by the way, is a rice farmer just like us. But rather than selling their rice from the previous harvest to be milled for consumption, they store and care for their rice–preserving the viability over the winter. And after we put our order in at CBM warehouse with Kenny and the boys, they load the rice seed into trailers and give it a water bath soak. As the seed absorbs water the soak does two primary things: adds water weight so that the rice seed sinks down to the soil as it hits the flooded field. AND it starts the germination process. Remember, as the seeds are soaking a couple days before application, that irrigation water is moving across the fields–so all the weed seeds out there are starting to germinate as well.

The soak in the trailer prevents the rice seed germination from falling too far behind the competing weed seeds. We’ll confirm to our seed grower once our rice field has been completely flooded with irrigation water, ask for him to drain the seed of the soak and deliver the trailers to the airstrip to be flown on. Simultaneously we’ll schedule the flight and seeding rate with the flying service. In our case, Williams Ag Service with a requested seeding rate of 165 lbs. per acre. And now that the rice seed has been delivered to the airstrip loader trucks are filled. The loader truck then fills the plane’s hopper. The hopper holds about 1,650 pounds of rice seed. So seeding a 150 acre field like ours, at a rate of 165 pounds per acre, it would take about 15 trips back to the airstrip to reload with rice in order to complete the job. Depending on the distance from the air strip to the target field, that 150 acres could be seeded in less than an hour.

And there’s my boy Shawn! You remember Shawn from Episode 63 when we took a cessna flight together and he gave me an aerial tour of our winter rice fields.That was a lot of fun and if you haven’t watched it, check it out! Now, once the plane’s hopper is loaded the ground crew and loader truck get clear. Shawn is clear for takeoff and the magic happens. It’s time to seed our rice fields! And Shawn takes flight! Locked and loaded ready to rain rice from above. Shawn and his fellow ag pilots are amazing! They do an amazing job in dangerous situations—especially flying around, above and below power lines. They are dropping rice seeds in the right place with several safety issues to consider.

As Shawn approaches our field he has a GPS guidance system helping him keep track of his flight path. The system is pre-programed for the coverage width of the seeding application. When he completes a pass and makes a wide u-turn and approaches his next pass the guidance lights above his dash direct him. Red means he’s off line. Green signals that his on line, on the right path. This all ensures a uniform application, not only that the whole field is seeded but the seeding rate is the same across the field. When the hopper is open and dropping seed each pass with the plane covers a width of 45-50 feet. The plane is traveling between 120-130 miles per hour when seeding so Shawn can cover a whole lot of ground fast. It’s just the most efficient way we can seed a field here in California. It’s just so mesmerizing.

Perhaps I’m romanticizing seeding our rice fields by air plane so much because we have put a lot of hard work into preparing the ground., so you know. So you know that watching the planes above our field is just so rewarding. And Shawn empties his hopper and returns to the airstrip for more seed. The process continues until the field has been completely seeded.   We seeded our first field on May 4th and our last on May 17th. That’s a tight window those 13 days. It’s a testament to our hard work on the ground and in tractors as well as the hard work of the ag pilots in the sky, dropping seed. Perhaps the only spring-time sight that rivals watching the seed fall from the planes is witnessing the baby rice plants emerging from the water. At the beginning of this episode I mentioned that we don’t want our flood irrigated fields too deep during seeding. We want them about 2” deep. It’s our philosophy, some rice farmers agree and some differ. But the reasoning is that we want the plants to get out of the water as soon as possible. Once the plant can begin effective photosynthesis, out of the water, it focuses its energy on it’s root system.

A strong root system anchors the plant into the soil. This avoids drift on high-windy days. We don’t want the wind to push all our seed to one side of the field. Strong roots prevent this. Also remember, we injected fertilizer 3” deep into the soil. Once the roots hit that nitrogen the rice plant gets another boost of nutrients and helps early growth. Another concern deep water can bring, aside from drift, are algae blooms. Algae forms within the water and can rise to the surface. If the algae is thick enough and the rice plant hasn’t yet reached the surface there could be problems.

The weak rice can’t push through the blanket of algae. It will drown. In a past episode titled “Attack of the Evil Scum” I go into that more in depth. Link also down in the description. So you see, the tractor work is over, the rice has been seeded, but the work does not stop. The farming does not stop. We need to monitor and regulate our irrigation water and care for our seeds and baby rice. There are many competing weeds and insects out there. But this is all part of the cycle of farming. One phase of the process completes and another phase begins. This is the green phase folks. In a future episode I’ll give you a tour of our fields and update you on the rice plant’s growth progress and health. Should be really green! I just want to give a quick thank you to Shawn for setting up my go-pro on his plane and to Chris Haile for helping me out with some on the ground shots.

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