When Bill Van Skike, president of California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors, offered up CPCSD’s crop size estimate for 2006, heads in the crowd jerked from side to side and eyes were darting around like there was a Victoria Secrets’ model streaking through the big canopy at the seed distributors’ annual gathering in Shafter, Calif.

The lunchtime tent was filled with many of the California cotton industry’s movers and shakers and just about everyone was looking for reactions to Van Skike’s estimate that there would be only 575,000 acres of cotton in the San Joaquin Valley — the lowest state cotton acreage since 1947. (Van Skike’s acreage estimate did not include cotton in Imperial, Riverside and San Bernadino, or in the Sacramento Valley. However, that is unlikely to account for more than the 30,000 acres combined planted in those areas this year.)

If Van Skike and CPCSD’s seed saving committee are right, next season will be the first for Pima acreage to exceed Acala/upland in the San Joaquin Valley. This classifies as good news.

Van Skike said his grower committee believes SJV Pima acreage will reach 290,000 acres in 2006, almost 60,000 more than this season. That leaves only 285,000 acres for Acala and upland, representing a drop of 115,000 from 2005, which was down 100,000 from the year before. That would the lowest upland acreage in California since the federal crop reporting service began keeping records in 1941. This is definitely the bad news.

The total number is not surprising since Earl Williams, president of the California Cotton Growers and Ginners Association, and others have predicted California cotton acreage would drop to 500,000 within five years. His estimate was made last year.

Five years looks more like it could arrive in two and that is sending shock waves through the cotton industry. It is not the decline that is hard to swallow. It is the speed that is causing whiplash.

There was considerable skepticism among the experts at CPCSD’s annual expo that the 290,000 Pima acres would be realized in ‘06. However, the general consensus is Pima acreage will go up next year. Van Skike said CPCSD’s total SJV acreage estimates made six months ahead of planting season have been remarkable over the years, and he saw no reason to doubt the 575,000 total. However, he is not personally confident in the 290,000-acre Pima figure.

100,000 acres more

“We could pick up 100,000 acres more cotton in 2006 than was expected to be planted this year, but was not,” said a hopeful Van Skike. Poor planting weather shifted some cotton acreage away to corn and other crops in 2005.

CPCSD chairman and Fresno County, Calif., producer Don Cameron verbalized the obvious reaction the acreage estimate.

“It was less than 10 years ago that there was 900,000 acres in the valley, and at one time California grew 1.5 million acres of cotton,” he recalled.

While the shift to corn may have taken away some of the planned 2005 cotton acres, in the long run it has been a combination of urbanization, an influx of new dairies demanding more alfalfa and corn, a shift in canning tomato acreage from Northern California south – primarily to Fresno County – and new almond and pistachio orchards that have taken away cotton production.

Increasing water and production costs like fuel have certainly not helped maintain cotton’s viability. As Cameron pointed out, 72-cent Acala/upland cotton does not pencil in at today’s costs.

No one is predicting the demise of the SJV cotton industry. However, it likely will be a different industry with a growing Pima acreage; demand for higher quality Acalas and steady-to-increasing planting seed acreage for uplands for other parts of the U.S. Cotton Belt. The San Joaquin Valley’s ideal growing season and long, open falls make it a near-perfect environment for seed production. CPCSD is part of that, producing considerable Fibermax seed for Bayer CropScience. It has helped maintain CPCSD’s economic viability. However, it is ironic since Fibermax has made significant inroads into Acala cotton’s textile mill business because the Australian-bred Fibermax has become a cheaper substitute for high prices SJV Acala.

Technology traits like herbicide resistance are helping keep costs down. The day is rapidly approaching when the only varieties released by seed companies will be trait cottons. CPCSD has 50 herbicide-tolerant varieties in its nursery.

However, Van Skike and Cameron reiterated that it would be improved quality that will keep cotton growing in the San Joaquin Valley. That has been dramatically demonstrated by the explosion of Pima American Extra Long Staple cotton in the valley, a crop that was not significant enough to warrant acreage reporting until the mid-1980s.

Growers quickly discovered that Pima essentially yields are equal to Acala, but is worth at least 30 cents or more per pound to the producer. Also, world demand for American Pima is growing at a rapid rate.

CPCSD has not been in the Pima race, but will soon enter it with its new Cobalt Pima.

Raise Acala bar

CPCSD has been breeding to raise the bar on Acala qualities and Van Skike said the 69-year-old cotton seed company is on the verge of a new era with higher quality Acalas like its new Fiesta RR, expected to win release from the San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board next spring.

This will be the last Roundup Ready Acala from CPCSD before the new era of Roundup Flex and Liberty Link cottons come on the scene. However, Van Skike said Fiesta represents a breakthrough beyond Maxxa quality.

CPCSD has been pushing its quality agenda with high-quality, Acala roller-ginned Ultima cotton. It has been getting a 14-cent per pound premium over saw-ginned Acalas, but it has not yielded as well as growers would like.

Steve Oakley, CPCSD vice president of research, said the new Ultima EF is a higher yielding cotton with even better fiber properties that its first cousin.

Hal Moser heads up CPCSD’s Pima and transgenic program. He told those on the seed distributors’ field tour that CPCSD has four fusarium wilt-resistance races in its Pima germplasm.

This is an emerging problem in the San Joaquin Valley. This new race can wipe out a field of Pima. It also causes damage in uplands.

Unlike other fusarium races which are found mainly sandy soils, race four can damage cotton growing in heavy soils. Also, it is not associated with nematodes, which is common with other fusarium races.

“We may not consider releasing a Pima variety in the future without race four fusarium resistance,” he said.

Moser said the new Cobalt Pima is a mid-season Pima, similar to Deltapine 340.

CPCSD is evolving away from Roundup Ready and BXN traits to Roundup Flex and Liberty Link traits. Moser also said CPCSD is working to put Bollgard II into Acala. “This may fit better in the San Joaquin Valley than Bollgard I,” he said. The new generation of Bt-cotton offers better control of worm pests more common in the valley, like armyworm and loopers.

“Our pipeline is full of new transgenic cottons as we move into the new era of biotechnology,” said Moser.

Vint Hicks, Monsanto research and development weed scientist, detailed the new Roundup Flex technology, which allows growers to apply Roundup later in the season and to use up to 32-ounces per season – 10 ounces more than currently permitted on Roundup Ready cotton.

The new Flex gene will allow growers to treat beyond the 4th true leaf without damaging the cotton. It has a seven-day, pre-harvest interval.

The new Flex technology is expected to be well-received in the West where the four true leaf cutoff stage now conflicts with irrigation scheduling.

Treat small weeds

Although the new Flex will not damage cotton, Vicks said it still is critical to treat weeds when they are small and to not wait until they are large just because a grower can without hurting the new Flex transgenic cotton. Treating large canopy cotton will require drop nozzles in a big canopy crop.

While this new technology will offer more flexibility, the rules for good weed control will not change, according to Hicks.

“Start clean with a weed-free field. Make timely applications during stand establishment and focus on controlling the worst weed in the field,” he said. “The smaller the weed, the better.”

Use a soil residual herbicide along with foliar applied Roundup. Pre-plant herbicides are inexpensive and can control lambsquarter and pigweed, two weeds which are showing resistance to glyphosate.

And, select the highest yielding cotton for the farm. “You don’t get paid on weed control. You get paid on yield,” he said.

Monsanto and others are working on other pest control and agronomic traits. “We have a lygus gene,” Hicks said. A transgenic trait that would control lygus would attract considerable interest in the West.

“We also have a drought tolerant gene in corn, cotton and soybeans, and it looks good in the field,” he added. He did not give a timetable for when those traits may appear in CPCSD varieties.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com