IRRI agronomy challenge: level the field

Author // Dr. Achim Dobermann Categories // Achim Dobermann's blog

We need a level field because rice will grow better, and it'll be much easier for us to manage it. But we've already learned our first lesson...

Getting started

January 4: It’s Wednesday afternoon and we’re ready to get started in our field. It’s been raining quite a bit in recent weeks, so everything is wet and we can’t do a dry soil tillage. Instead, we have plowed the field as it is normally done by farmers, with standing water in the field. Now it’s time to level it. Why? Watch Leigh explain it in the video. A level field is critical for growing a good direct-seeded rice crop because it

Achim Dobermann and Leigh Vial discuss and demonstrate laser leveling  - the first step in establishing a good rice crop.
Complete playlist of videos in this series

  • Improves crop establishment
  • Enables more uniform water control and thus also saves a lot of water
  • Reduces weed problems and
  • Results in uniform crop maturity.

We’ve decided that we’re not going to mess around with a water buffalo and a wooden plank to get our field leveled the way we want. Instead, we use a tractor equipped with a laser leveler, which should give us the most precise control possible. Leigh’s the man for this and it has taken him not even 30 minutes to get it done. A first time for him because in Australia, where he comes from, leveling of rice fields is usually done under dry soil conditions, which is a lot easier.  With water still standing in it, the field really looks neat and pretty level. We think we’ve done a decent job.

First disappointment

Laser leveling the field.

Laser leveling the field.


The field after the second attempt at leveling.

The field after the second attempt at leveling.

So we thought. On Friday morning, with the water drained off, we see a different picture: many patches that are not as level as we had hoped for. Standing water in low-lying areas could lead to poor crop emergence. In contrast, soil on higher ground would dry out faster, which may cause weed problems. We’re not happy and we can’t proceed with the sowing as planned. Instead, off we go again and do another round of laser leveling.

Looking better now, at last, but we have fallen behind schedule already.

Lessons learned

Check on the quality of your work – and not only from the distance. We also have to admit that the machine we used - a large tractor with a laser-guided rotovator/leveler attachment - is not widely available to farmers in Asia. Yet, there are alternatives that farmers already use to achieve  similar results, including small 2-wheel tractors or buffalo-drawn leveling devices. What is already spreading more widely in parts of Asia (e.g., Pakistan, Northern India, Vietnam, Cambodia) is laser leveling done under dry soil conditions, using a simple bucket-type device that scrapes the soil surface to even it out. That would have also been our preference, but it was far too wet for that. Laser leveling not only improves crop management, but it also provides new opportunities for local entrepreneurs to become small service providers for other farmers.


About the Author

Dr. Achim Dobermann

Dr. Achim Dobermann

Achim is a soil scientist and agronomist with 25 years experience working in Asia, North America and Europe. He is recognized internationally as an authority on science and technology for food security and sustainable management of the world's major cereal cropping systems. He has authored or co-authored over 250 scientific papers and two books on nutrients in rice and has received numerous awards from various academic, government and industry organizations. He is a Fellow of the American Society of Agronomy and a Fellow of the Soil Science Society of America.

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