Master Farmer Program: Learning Best Management Practices

Linda Benedict  |  4/5/2005 1:15:03 AM

Kevin Berken of Lake Arthur, left, explains to Eddie Eskew, Jefferson Davis Parish county agent, how a drop pipe prevents erosion of levees when rice fields are flooded. Berken sold real estate in California several years before returning to Louisiana to farm with his brothers, Clarence and Stephen Berken.

Kenneth LaHaye of Vidrine explains his underground irrigation system. LaHaye rotates rice and pasture on 220 acres, and he plans to use soybeans in rotation once he builds up the soil quality.

A rice farmer between Eunice and Crowley water-levels his field before planting. This is the traditional method. The alternative is laser-leveling, which is more accurate but more expensive. (Photos by Bruce Schultz)

Richard Latiolais gazed over the emerald field of an emerging wheat crop near Palmetto in St. Landry Parish.

“This is all fresh ground,” he said. “We precision-leveled it last summer.”

Laser-leveling and irrigation are primary components of Latiolais’ farm plan.

“We’re trying to let Mother Nature give us her benefits,” Latiolais said.

Latiolais said the Master Farmer program’s class confirmed he is on the right path with many of the best management practices (BMPs).

“You have no control over the weather, but it gives you the best preparations,” he said.

In the short term, he said, the measures are expensive, but they should be viewed as long-term investments in the land. “I can see it’s a work in progress. If a farmer thinks about it, he’s actually saving money. You’re farming more efficiently, and that’s the name of the game."

Latiolais has his own farmland near his home in Parks in St. Martin Parish, and he sharecrops 2,500 acres near Palmetto. In all, Latiolais grows sugarcane on 4,000 acres, an enterprise that has him on the go constantly, rolling up almost 30,000 miles a year on his pickup. He’s so busy he hasn’t had time to keep track of his age. “I’m 34 or 35. I’ll have to ask my wife.”

This year’s wheat crop rotation at the Palmetto farm is his first grain crop ever. “This is a cover crop for erosion control in the winter months,” Latiolais said, pointing to 250 acres of the lush growth.

The grain will be harvested but it’s also planted to add organic material to the sandy loam that has only .3 percent organic material, he said. At that level, he said, soil compaction becomes a problem after heavy rains.

Irrigation has paid off after planting cane, he said.

“Had I taken a chance with weather, I wouldn’t have gotten a stand.”

A weir retains runoff water in a canal that can be used for irrigation until the dry summer months when water has to be pumped.

Latiolais said his father, Chris Latiolais, was one of the first farmers to start irrigating cane in the mid-1980s in St. Martin Parish. He still grimaces at the memory of spending long summer days stringing out sections of heavy, aluminum pipe. The collapsible poly pipe he uses now is simply unrolled, then punctured where water is intended.

Latiolais’ father has retired from farming but he runs the laser-leveling operations, averaging 350 acres a year of leveling on the Palmetto farm. Latiolais said once the Palmetto land is completed, the leveling work will shift to his farm at Parks.

Latiolais said he learned that a 1 percent slope allows irrigation water to flow too quickly through poly pipe on a 350-acre cane field, so this year he expects to build a small levee across the field to impede the flow enough for better dispersion.

“This precision leveling is a learning process,” he said.

In subsequent years, the grade on more recently modified fields was reduced to .5 percent, he said, requiring an average of 300 cubic yards of soil per acre to be moved.

“You want to enhance the natural slope of the property,” he said. “This is the highest part of the property where the pump is located.”

Latiolais fights Bermudagrass, the bane of cane farmers, with herbicide, but said he realizes it’s a campaign that will require several battles. Once Bermudagrass is controlled, he said, he wants to foster a growth of nonharmful greenery that will act as a filter bed, reducing the amount of sediment carried in runoff. He also plans to install a runoff collection system at the end of his fields, but he said time and cooperation from the weather have yet to coincide.
Latiolais grew a seed plot for cane, but this year he burned it because it probably had infestations of insects and fungus and he wants to minimize his use of chemicals. “My philosophy is I want to try to let nature control the insects and weeds,” he said.

Kenneth LaHaye of Vidrine said the Master Farmer course was another green light to continue what he started on his farm 12 years ago.

LaHaye said he almost quit farming in 2002, after several bad years, but a friend persuaded him he had too much effort and money involved, so he persevered. “I’m glad I did, because my first love is production agriculture.”

LaHaye has used laser-leveling since 1992. Skeptics warned him that he would have poor harvests because the topsoil had been disturbed.

“My yields have not suffered,” he said. “I have not missed a crop yet.”

His land has a .01 percent slope, a tenth of an inch for every 1,000 feet.

“That’s the minimum you can do,” he said.

The obvious benefit from laser-leveling a rice field has been a reduction in the amount of water needed to flood a field, he said. LaHaye said the extra benefit has been a reduced fleet of equipment because the land requires only minimum maintenance.

“I used to have three tractors, and now I have one that does everything,” he said.
Because the fields slope uniformly, less plumbing is needed for drainage, he said.

LaHaye said he has been able to reduce the number of levees, creating large fields, and that also makes irrigation much simpler. An underground 12-inch pipeline provides water to all of his fields.

“All of this acreage is flooded with that well, a mile away,” he said.

LaHaye said he soon realized the potential for laser-leveling extended beyond agriculture, and he now has a company to level land for large projects, such as the new Evangeline Downs racetrack at Opelousas. He wants to build a tailwater reservoir to store runoff water for irrigation.

LaHaye said every year he rotates his 220 acres between rice and pasture for his 75 head of Brangus cattle. He plants ryegrass to provide needed organic material to build up the soil, and he uses composted chicken litter for extra nitrogen.

He said it will take several years before the soil will be suitable for rotation with soybeans.

In fields that have been plagued by red rice, he is planting Clearfield rice, a herbicide-resistant line developed by the LSU AgCenter.

LaHaye and fellow rice farmer Kevin Berken of Lake Arthur rely heavily on stale seed beds. That reduces the amount of sediment in runoff water because the fields are plowed weeks or even months before planting, then treated with herbicides.

“We try to do it far enough in advance to minimize sediments,” Berken said.
The fields are planted, then flooded to suppress red rice, which requires oxygen for germination, then drained.

“That’s a big improvement on water quality right there,” said Eddie Eskew, Jefferson Davis Parish county agent for rice in Southwest Louisiana.

A stale seed bed also allows for an easier harvest because the field isn’t rutted, Berken said. He said the first years of using stale seed beds required some adjustment because he wasn’t doing much in his fields during the winter months.Berken has implemented several other BMPs, including a tailwater recovery system. He relied on that in the drought of 2000 when many farmers in the area didn’t dare pump salt-laden water from canals onto their rice fields. Berken also has a deep well that he used in 2000, but it hadn’t been required since his father used it in 1953.

Berken said he plans to buy a laser-leveling system, but for now he uses water leveling. That requires large 4-wheel drive tractors to work the soil into a soupy consistency that spreads evenly over a field.

Berken plans to try Clearfield rice this year to fight red rice, and he’s also going to gamble this year on 120 acres of soybeans. He lets 200 acres sit idle every year, and cultivates the remaining 400 acres.

Many of the BMPs not only make sense from a conservation standpoint, they also save cents, Berken said.

Some of the practices are cheap and simple, but save labor and money, in addition to conserving soil. For example, Berken has installed a series of drop pipes that allow him to convey water from one field to another. The plastic pipes prevent the flow of water from eroding soil.

But Berken, who sold real estate in California before returning to his roots, said taking care of the land is a priority.

“We have to be good stewards of the soil and environment because otherwise we take a beating,” he said.

Eskew said the value of a voluntary program became evident several years ago at a meeting held by environmental regulators who revealed tighter restrictions were under consideration for farmers in South Louisiana. The proposals were not being considered for the timber industry because of the voluntary Master Forester program that stressed BMPs, Eskew said.

“It was not long after that meeting that Paul Coreil recognized we should be pro-active,” Eskew said.

Paul Coreil, now LSU AgCenter vice chancellor, at that time was the AgCenter’s assistant director of environmental programs. He said the voluntary program was devised to allow farmers to adopt soil and water conservation measures.

“It’s self-determination of your future,” Coreil said.

Producers quickly realized the benefits and signed up for the program, he said.
“The farmers in the southwest part of the state have been a big part of why this got off the ground,” Coreil said.

Bruce Schultz

(This article appeared in the spring 2004 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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