Rice researchers simmering new ideas after pondering past
Texas rice isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Delicious? No doubt.
Heavily consumed? Try 1.2 billion pounds this year.
Economically beneficial? Think more than $170 million worth to the state this year.
But there's bound to be more tied up in the tiny kernels, Texas AgriLife researchers think, so they pored over 50 years of data seeking the next clue for improvement. Then they took it to the next step--planting 23 of the varieties developed since 1944 to see how they might grow on today's farm.
They found that their research predecessors combined selective breeding techniques with on-farm growing methods to continuously increase yield and quality of rices for Texas.
"These results demonstrate the significant progress that has been achieved in rice breeding for the southern U.S. since 1944," said Dr. Rodante Tabien in the December issue of Crop Science Journal. "Increase in rice production is generally associated to new varieties, but that is just part of the production system. Other technologies like fertilizer contributed to this increase in production as well. Our study will help the new plant breeders to learn how the pioneers did it, and the general public also can appreciate the hard work of the breeders in increasing food supply through the development of new cultivars."
Tabien is the journal article's lead author and an AgriLife Research rice breeder at Beaumont.
Rice had its start in Texas on about 175 acres in 1892. Early growers depended on foreign seed to adapt to the Texas soils and climate. By 1931, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had established a program at AgriLife Research--then called Texas Agricultural Experiment Station--at Beaumont to study the science behind rice production.
In little more than 10 years, the article notes, the first new variety, "Texas Patna," was released to the farmers. The researchers continued to develop other possibilities in the breeding program, successfully launching "Bluebonnet" in 1944.
For the first 50 years, rice researchers released 26 varieties, according to Dr. Anna McClung, who initiated the historic look at the Texas rice breeding program. McClung, who is a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service, looked both at the selection process for specific traits and the use of fertilizer, which have an impact on yield and quality.
For their comparative experiment, the researchers grew 23 varieties in three different environments and with two levels of nitrogen fertilizer.
They found that over the years, each new variety was an improvement from the previous release.
"The contribution of plant breeding is related to gains or improvement in various traits such as high yield and better resistance. The measured gains are clues to breeders on what traits to focus and what gains could be expected," Tabien said. "If the gain is lower, the breeder may opt to look for ways to obtain higher gain."
One way to do that, he explained, is to consider what previous plant breeders have studied on that trail, analyze what has been done and then look for other options to improve the gains.
"If the gain is higher, the new challenge will be what else can be done to increase it further. These will give hints and guide new breeders in what to do, avoid or search to increase the gains made by the previous breeders," Tabien said.
Among the desirable traits for rice, Tabien explained, are the number of days it takes a plant to "head" or get the rice developing, the plant height, whole and total milled rice percentages, and grain yield.
These traits are as important today as when the rice breeding program began almost 80 years ago, he said, plus scientists are considering new needs.
"Herbicide resistance is needed in rice for better weed control. Seedling cold tolerance and heat tolerance during reproductive stage will also be needed in the coming years," Tabien said. "Resistance to prevailing pests should be incorporated also in new cultivars. Aside from the above traits, the traits on which we are currently focusing are fast tiller and leaf production, uniform flowering and nitrogen use efficiency."
He said using wild rice strains to further increase grain yield is another effort of the scientists.
Tabien said the data thus far examines only the varieties released from 1944-1992.
The team had begun to examine varieties and promising entries since 1993, he said, but the experiment was damaged by last fall's Hurricane Ike. They plan to repeat the trial next year, and Tabien expects data from that experiment to be complete by 2011.