[Image: Steve Linscombe]
News Release Distributed 05/30/14
CROWLEY, La. – The challenge of providing viable varieties of rice for Louisiana growers is one of the main missions of the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station.
“Variety development is an ongoing endeavor that started over 100 years ago,” said Steve Linscombe, station director and rice breeder.
When the Rice Research Station was first established in 1909, rice germplasm from across the world was tested to determine varieties suitable for southwest Louisiana conditions, Linscombe said. Since then, the station has released 51 varieties.
Linscombe said a variety is considered good if it remains an acceptable choice for seven to 10 years and very good if it lasts 20 years. The variety Cypress, released by the LSU AgCenter in 1992, had yield and quality advantages along with seedling vigor beyond anything grown at the time. It became the predominant choice for three to four years, Linscombe said, and it still remains in use.
Cocodrie, released by the LSU AgCenter in 1998, replaced Cypress with better yield, and it continues to be grown.
Linscombe said varieties don’t change for the worse through years of growing seasons. “It’s inevitable that factors affecting a variety tend to change over time.”
He explained that every variety is susceptible to different disease pathogens that are able to thrive on a new variety. Those pathogens increase in population with each growing season until they eventually affect a variety’s ability to produce a crop.
To stay ahead of diseases, Linscombe said, it’s essential to develop new varieties.
Linscombe said when he evaluates new lines of rice for their potential as new varieties, he’s not focusing on just yield, plant height, disease resistance or quality. “I’m looking for everything.”
Often, he said, rice breeding requires a compromise among different traits. And sometimes a trait makes a line of rice an obvious choice for development.
For example, he said, a line of rice that is ready for harvest 10 days earlier than usual is a big advantage in Louisiana where farmers want to get their crop out of the field as early as possible to beat the possibility of hurricanes and possibly to get a second crop started.
Linscombe said variety development at the Rice Research Station has also led to introducing new specialty varieties, such as Jazzman I and Jazzman II, which are now being improved with a Clearfield Jazzman. The specialty varieties have specialized characteristics such as aroma and grain shape that appeal to niche markets.
This year, the breeding program has 70,000 rows planted. He said that number is down by roughly 30 percent because of the 2012 blast epidemic that claimed a big percentage of the experimental lines. Linscombe said it will take a few years to increase that total, but he hopes to have it at 80,000 rows at the station.
This year at the winter nursery in Puerto Rico, he grew and selected among 15,000 rows.
Linscombe said the breeding program is an expensive undertaking that depends heavily on the checkoff funds paid by farmers. Since 1972, Louisiana farmers have agreed to pay 5 cents toward research for every 100 pounds of rice sold.
“The rice research checkoff program has been well over half of what is needed for the breeding program,” Linscombe said. “We couldn’t do nearly as much without it.”
After a legal challenge of the checkoff program, the Louisiana Legislature approved a new checkoff system that awaits the governor’s consideration.
Linscombe said variety development is a labor-intensive, highly specialized task. He said it takes several years for a new employee to learn the intricacies of the system.
“The most important resource we have here is the people,” he said. “I’ve got an outstanding group of people I work with, and that’s so valuable.”
The research associates include Karen Bearb, who has been in the program for 22 years, and Brent Theunissen, who has 15 years of experience. Rick Zaunbrecher has 10 years. Herman Hoffpauir retired last year after more than 30 years on the job.
Linscombe said the other departments at the Rice Research Station also help in variety development by determining if new lines are susceptible to diseases and insect pests and to find out seeding and fertilizer rates for potential varieties.
Specialized, expensive equipment is needed to plant and harvest the lines. A combine that cuts the 5-foot rows costs as much as a 30-foot harvester, Linscombe said.
Area farmers also help with new varieties, he said. Linscombe tests new lines in off-station plots on cooperating farmers’ fields. This year, the breeding program has seven locations, he said.
The off-station trials allow Linscombe to see how the varieties perform in varied environments.
The Lounsberry Farm in Vermilion Parish has provided land for trials for 30 years, Linscombe said, and the Hoppe Farm in Jefferson Davis Parish has been a cooperator for 20 years. The R&Z Farm in Acadia Parish and the Bieber Farm in Evangeline Parish have provided space for more than 10 years.
Linscombe said farmers provide water and help prepare and maintain the fields. “It’s not real easy, and sometimes it’s a hassle, but the producers realize the value of what we do.”