Spacing between modules ringing the 900,000 acres of California and Arizona cotton may be a little wider than growers would like to see, but the spacing could have been wide enough to drive a fleet of cotton pickers through abreast.

This has turned out to be an average Western crop — and most growers are grateful for it after lousy planting weather plagued the start of California's crop and a brutal summer hammered Arizona cotton.

It reached average thanks to an open, warm fall that has been called “remarkable, a blessing and fantastic.” A top crop and virtually ideal defoliation conditions saved the day for many producers in both states. It compensated for the hot desert summer and slow start in California.

However, an average crop implies a wide range of high and lows. There are four bales yields as well as one-and-a-half bales fields.

“This year is all over the board in the San Joaquin Valley — by region, by grower, by variety, by field,” said California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors (CPCSD) president Bill Van Skike.

“There are guys making two bales and guys making four bales — dismal failures and exceptional yields,” said Van Skike.

Management key

The difference, according to University of California and University of Arizona agricultural agents and others in the industry was management. Growers who reacted to pest pressures with timely treatments and heat spells with timely irrigation generally were rewarded for their efforts. Producers who parked when planting conditions deteriorated also made a wise management decision, Those who tried to set up the crop for a top crop also were rewarded.

Fortunately, for everyone prices are not all over the board. They went overboard in October with SJV Acala spot prices nearing 90 cents per pound in the middle of harvest. Desert Southwest prices were not far behind. Pima spot prices soared well over $1 per pound.

December 2004 futures at 70 cents were attracting hedges. At 75 cents per pound, hedging would become common, predicted one market expert.

“This is a market-driven price. There is demand for SJV quality cotton,” said Kings County UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Bruce Roberts.

“It's strictly China driving the market,” said Calcot fieldman Kevin Long.

China is a 30-million-bale-consumption country with reports of only a 22- to 25-million-bale crop this year. Some say it could tumble to 20 million bales. When the big dog barks, the world cotton market listens.

In late September, more than a few folks were wondering what fields USDA was looking at to make its yield estimates for California. Now, Earl Williams, president of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations, thinks USDA's estimate for California of almost 1,300 pounds for Acala/upland and just under 1,300 pounds for Pima might be right. Last year California averaged 1,469 pounds for upland and 1,381 for Pima.

“We have got a good crop out there in many places,” he said.

Middle and top

“Most of the crop is in the middle and top of the plants because were late getting started,” said Fresno County UC Farm Advisor Dan Munk, who added 2003 will go down as a “Pix year” because plenty of the plant growth regulator went on to set crop and to slow down vegetative growth created by the late start.

“We are probably close to a five- to six-year average on yields. Most growers are disappointed, but you cannot have every year like last year. That was exceptional,” said Munk.

“We have had two exceptional years before this one,” chimed in Roberts.

UC Cotton Specialist Bob Hutmacher said he has seen “quite a few fields in the 1,400 to 1,600-pound range,” but there have also been some big disappointments.”

Hutmacher is surprised at what is not below the top crop. “It is surprising to see how poor the bottom and middle crops are in some places. Where you would normally see second and third position bolls on Acala and fourth position bolls on Pima, they are not there,” said Hutmacher. “Some fields simply ran out of gas.”

Roberts said post defoliation plant mapping should tell growers where they mismanaged this season, be it missed pest control measures or untimely irrigation.

Defoliation aided

“We really lucked out with an open fall,” said Hutmacher. It has meant as much as 300 pounds more cotton in some fields.

Record heat facilitated defoliation, although it did create re-growth problems in some areas, according to Madera County Farm Advisor Ron Vargas.

“Everybody planned for an open fall and fortunately, we got it,” said Long.

Overall, though the record heat in October finished off the top crop nicely, said Roberts, and “I think we set a record getting this crop out with the long warms days we had,” he added.

“Everything is rolling along very smoothly and growers are following behind pickers with ground prep,” said the Kings County farm advisor. There is enough picking capacity in the valley to gather more than one million acres of cotton. This year the acreage totaled only about 700,000.

Pest problems were as variable as yields. Growers in some areas dodged the bullet where others probably treated more than last year, primarily to control silverleaf whiteflies and aphids to prevent stickiness.

“The warm, open fall was a double-edge sword. It allowed late bolls to open, but it also provided heat units for insect populations to build,” said Hutmacher.

“It will be a good year for PCAs to compare notes as to what worked and what did not,” said Hutmacher.

Some think 2004 also will be a good year for cotton.

“We'll have wall to wall cotton next year,” Williams said a bit facetiously.

“We've been saying that since 1999 and it has not happened yet, but we can always hope,” said Van Skike.

Arizona yields

Yields also are “quite variable” in Central Arizona as well, according to UA extension agriculture agent Steve Husman, who is responsible for both Pima and Pinal counties.

“I keep hearing yields are off a half to three-fourths of a bale, whatever that might means,” said Husman.

“This is not surprising due to the particularly brutal summer we had and the associated heat stress and resultant shed,” he explained.

This forced growers to go for the top crop.

Interestingly, Husman said later planted cotton is picking as well as or better than early-planted cotton. This is typically the exception, but understandable this year.

“The later planting dates moved the fruiting cycle past the intense heat and was able to offer more fruit retention opportunity,” Husman explained.

USDA is projecting a yield of 1,315 pounds this year for Arizona uplands, only slightly less than the 1,381 pounds last season.

Maricopa County UA Extension Agent Patrick Clay said record October heat did not make the Arizona snowbirds happy, but it did for the native cotton growers.

He called October heat “saving grace” that allowed producers to make up for losses during July and August with a good top crop.

The heat disappeared quickly with a cool spell just before Halloween. The arrival of fall in late October in both states may pose a challenge for some of the late cotton that remained to be defoliated in Arizona.


e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com