This could be the best cotton crop California San Joaquin Valley cotton producers have seen in a very long time — maybe for several decades.

Shhhhhhhhhh!

Not so loud.

It is so good folks are jokingly worried about the jinx factor. Jinxing is about all anyone has had to worry about until now. Planting was so perfect the dean of SJV cotton producers, 95-year-old Dick Shannon calls it the best he has seen. That is saying something since the Tulare County grower and longtime Calcot director planted his first SJV cotton crop in 1928.

Perfection in the beginning was followed by equally ideal growing conditions. Insect pests have been largely non-existent. Weather extremes have also been non-existent.

Calcot director of communication Mark Bagby said the latest crop report showing 60 to 65 percent of the fields in excellent condition; 35 good and only 5 percent fair is “phenomenal.

“I am not sure you could order up better growing season weather in California. Right now plants are loaded, and growers have their fingers crossed hoping the plants can hang on to it,” he said.

Experts says the chances of that are good.

There are still about 45 days left to finish up the 750,000 acres of SJV Pima and Acala cotton, and aphids and silverleaf whiteflies are beginning to show up in worrisome levels.

Insect costs light

Growers are reacting to those numbers like the farmer with the prettiest daughter in the county: they've taken the plug out of the pump shotgun; loaded it to the hilt and will not hesitate to protect what some have called potentially the best overall SJV crop in half a century.

And, there is plenty of cash for extra shells because insect control budgets to date have hardly been debited.

The desert crop in Arizona and Southern California is not quite as hardy at the SJV crop, but it is average or above average. Planting weather there was good — so good that is may have triggered an early, extra generation of Silverleaf Whitefly, according to Herman Meiser, farm advisor in Imperial County, Calif.

Kings County farm advisor Bruce Roberts used his best Jack Nicholson to describe the Kings County and Central Valley crop he has seen: “It's as good as it gets.”

Plants are loaded. Normally growers would fret in that situation with as much season as there is left with cutout at hand.

Roberts said while terminal growth may have slowed toward dreaded cutout, plants continued to put on fruit in the canopy to second, third and fourth positions.

Roberts calls it “lingering cutout.” Yellow Pima cotton blooms on the sides of plants was were common sight this season in late July.

University of California extension cotton specialist Bob Hutmacher says plants have much better root systems than the last big yielding year, 2002, when four bale SJV fields were not uncommon.

“Plants are in pretty good shape with a good boll load,” he said.

“It has not been surprising to see the first fruiting branch at the fifth or even four nodes this year with plenty of horsepower in the plant to set fruit maybe as far out as the fourth node,” said Hutmacher.

Someone joked that the only thing holding fields from reaching five-bale yields is plants are not big enough to hold a crop that large because they are loaded down with potential four-bale crops.

Save on water

“There are going to be a lot of open bolls on Aug. 10,” said Hutmacher, who added that the early, heavy crops growers have the opportunity to reduce or eliminate late-season irrigation and save a little money. With purchased water prices on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley in the $150 per acre foot range, water cost is the biggest investment in this crop.

California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors president Bill Van Skike says cotton picking should start in Kern County by Sept. 15, far ahead of normal.

“A lot can happen between now and then, but for now growers are calling this crop the best they have ever seen on their farms,” said Van Skike. “I have not heard one single negative comment from a farmer this season.”

Fresno County farm advisor Dan Munk said growers with four-bale crops in 2002 will likely see even better crops in those same fields in 2004. However, he cautioned growers to make sure these high yielding fields are not water stressed or irrigated to heavily. Both, he said can cause boll shed.

“Growers are watching irrigation and late season nitrogen closely. This is the year it may be responsible to consider late season N,” said Roberts.

While growers are still a bit reluctant to herald “Strike Up The Band” for crop, they are equally wary of another S — sticky cotton.

“The aphid and whitefly factor are something you have to look at this season,” said Roberts. These insects can inhibit photosynthesis with honeydew on the leaves, reducing yields, and they can ruin open lint with stickiness.

“I think growers learned their lesson a few years ago when we had the sticky cotton problem. They have heard the message loud and clear: we cannot afford sticky cotton,” said Roberts.

“We have the tools and the financial means this year to control pests. The budget is there to control aphids and whiteflies because we have not spent much thus far,” said Roberts.

Other growing areas

Whitefly began moving into cotton in Imperial Valley and along the Colorado River in Arizona in high numbers in early July. They started building in Central Arizona about two weeks later.

Fortunately, pest pressure had been light until then, according to Pinal and Pima counties University of Arizona extension agent Steve Husman.

“Whitefly and lygus are Arizona's major pests with Bt cotton eliminating pink bollworm from the picture, said Husman.

“Lygus have been extremely light,” he said.

Central Arizona cotton began setting fruit low, the fifth or sixth node, but it did not old and the crop there now started on the eighth to 10th node, said Husman.

“It is a good crop for Arizona and Southern California,” said Bagby. “It not quite as good as in California, but it is still average to above average for Arizona.” There are about 240,000 acres in Arizona and Southern California this season.

In Imperial Valley where there is about 9,000 acres of that, Meister said the crop grew off well with no problems.

“Little did we realize that the warm spell in March probably triggered an extra generation of silverleaf whiteflies,” he said.

Now growers there are dealing with high whitefly numbers and have already treated several times.

“Many fields should have been treated and were not. That leads to greater problems for everyone sooner or later,” said Meister. Unfortunately “a lot of cotton is shining from honeydew.” Fortunately not much cotton is open. That is the good news.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com