Why do you have levees in a rice field?

We finished up planting all of our rice just as it has stopped raining in our area.  There have been few scattered showers but nothing to speak of on our farm.  The soil is too dry to plant soybeans so we are doing what we need to do which is lay polypipe to irrigate our corn and flush water over the rice fields.  I will talk more about the corn irrigation in a later post but today I want to answer the most common question we get from people is why do you have levees in the rice fields?

It’s all about the water!  Rice grows in a flooded environment and to be the most efficient we need the levees to hold the water at a consistent depth throughout the field.  Because the Earth is not flat, we must build (or pull) a levee along the contours of elevation in the field.

You can look at a topographic map of the State of Arkansas here.  Although the eastern side of the state appears flat compared to the western side we still have enough slope to need levees to achieve the shallow flood required for rice production.  Thankfully we do have a hard-pan of soil just a few inches down that provides a barrier of sorts for the soil to hold the water.  And in addition to that, the most efficient fields have a heavy clay soil which also holds water very well.  This can be good and bad for us because those soils hold the spring rain water longer and make it difficult to get it planted and harvested in the fall.  But they are the very best for growing rice!  Go figure!! Anyway, this is why we traditionally grow rice in my area of the state.

Ok, so back to the levees- why are they crooked and why are some straight?  Remember the levee is following the contour at a certain elevation.  So when the levee is crooked that elevation is meandering around the field and when it is straight the landowner has precision leveled the field.  This means they have moved the soil around so that the elevation falls at a consistent rate throughout the field.  For example, the topo map would have all parallel lines in a precision level field and that’s what the levees follow!  The closer together the levees are the steeper the fall and the further apart they are means the field is flatter.

Hillside with curvy levees

Do you build the levees after you plant the field or before?  The answer for us here in NE Arkansas is after.  In other growing regions they leave the levees up permanently.  We rotate our crops between rice and soybeans mainly so we tear them down after the crop to be able to plant soybeans the following year.  To find the levees position you must know the elevation.  There are several methods to do this but I

Precision leveled field with straight levees

will explain the method we use on our farm.  The tractor that is planting maps out the elevation of the field while planting.  It is a good time to map it since that tractor will cover the entire field and be able to make a good map.  We space our levees a certain elevation apart and when you enter your desired fall in elevation into our software program it “draws” the levees out.  This program is then used to drive the tractor in the correct locations to build the actual levees.  Technology has made us much more efficient in this process.  Fewer passes with equipment in the field which equates to fewer people needed for the job and no problems finding the elevations.

Screen in the tractor that drives the correct elevations to build the levees

There are also many implements that can be used to build, pack and seed the levees.  Yes seed!  Even though we have planted the field we want to make sure the levees make rice too!  By adding more rice seed as the levee building equipment passes over the levees we can insure rice production on the levees.  Every acres counts!  Here are a couple of implements we use in our heavy clay soils to build the best levees.

Levee squeeze
Levee packer and seeder








On top of the levee packer is a red box that holds the rice seed.  As the tractor drives down the levee, seed is distributed out over the levee.

As I was finishing this post we received a nice rain on most of the farm.  Thank you Lord!  What a gift for us at this time of year!  We are now able to turn off most irrigation wells and save on the cost of watering.  Our crew will be working to make sure we do not have standing water for too long in any of the fields at this point.  Then we can get back to planting soybeans and hopefully end our planting season.

3 thoughts on “Why do you have levees in a rice field?”

  1. Hello Jennifer,

    I wonder how you harvest the rice on the levees? an secondly what software do you use to map out the elevation on the rice field.
    I am developing a rice project for young farmers in Africa and I think your experience will come in very handy

    1. Your project sounds very interesting! What time of year do you plant and harvest? We harvest our fields beginning in August/September with a traditional combine and a stripper header made by Shelbourne Reynolds. We are able to harvest the rice on the levees just like in the paddy. Our software is called Farm Works and we use Trimble GPS technology. Thanks for the questions!

      1. Thank you for your response my earlier comment/questions.

        Traditionally we plant grains around April-June and mid-August to late September. The time we plant is largely dependent on availability of rain which has been pretty unstable in recent years. However, with well distributed rainfall we can plant throughout the rainy season (April to late October). So if we plant in April, we harvest around July when we normally have dry spells. We can then plant again around mid-August and Harvest around November. Soybeans is normally delayed till early September.

        Largely rice is cultivated under rain-fed system, the common practice here is to plant rice like normal grains (upland Planting) or in the lowland (wetland), here the farmers create permanent bunds (Levees). The bunds is used to sub-divide farms into smaller plots to retain water when it rains and the field becomes flooded (recently tube wells are being used as supplementary water source in some cases). The subdivided plots are always not so big (I have some pictures I can send to you to view) because usually the field are not laser leveled or the contours are not mapped out like you do. The down side of this is that it limits our mechanization options and most of the farm operations are carried out using manual labour/small farm hand tools and the yield per hectare is very low.
        The other problem I see is that the rice field are often developed to cultivated rice year-in, year-out which often result into soil nutrient mining and also changes in soil structure.
        About 80% of the food produced in Nigeria, is produced by smallholder farmers, having average of 1-5 ha farmers. The fragmented farmland/ operational structures is also one of the main problems. So our strategy is to develop model farms in these farming communities and engage the farmers under participatory/sweat equity reward system. The primary aim is to use these model farms as platforms to train farmers, and provide them access to pre-financed farm infrastructures and equipment, so establish new clusters of farm as groups/farmers’ cooperatives.

        I really like the idea of been able to rotate crops on the rice farms and I will like to replicate your production model here on our farms, so I look forward to more information and suggestions from you. I also read your post “Rice Planting Complete and Spotlight” and I will make contact with Arkansas State University to know the options I have to enroll online for a course in Agriculture Technology.


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