Cotton farmers outside of California and Arizona are expected to plant about 14 million acres of cotton this season. As much as 10 percent of that will be planted with seed grown in California fields, which just four years ago would have been plowed under as illegal cotton.

California’s San Joaquin Valley has been the private domain of Acala and Pima cotton varieties for more than 70 years. However, in 1999 the valley was opened up to all upland varieties. The year before El Nino produced a nightmare for SJV cotton producers that became a dream come true for major U.S. cotton seed companies. Seed companies like Deltapine and Stoneville have longingly eyed the San Joaquin Valley and its May to November dry growing and harvest season as a place to produce an abundance of high quality cotton seed year after year for the U.S. and the world. However, the door was closed until problems with El Nino opened the valley to cottons that once were totally banned from the six Southern San Joaquin Valley cotton-producing valleys.

Last season 12,000 acres of the 19,000 acres of "California Upland" varieties grown in the valley were for planting seed for varieties better suited for areas outside of California. That is enough seed to plant about 1.2 million acres of cotton. And the total is expected to grow as major seed producers are ratcheting up their financial incentives to contract seed production among SJV producers.

Necessary expense

It is pricey to grow seed in expensive California and ship it east for processing and bagging. However, the constant threat of losing seed production elsewhere is making seed companies swallow hard and pay the price — as much as $135 per acre to growers. It is not uncommon for seed companies to lose production to weather in other parts of the Belt. For the past three seasons, Stoneville and Deltapine have had major seed field losses in the mid-South due to weather.

California has become the difference between having enough seed for the market and turning away customers.

Acala and Pima seed production acreage is not included in those 12,000 acres.

However, seed companies get plenty for what they pay for. Seed yields are higher in California than anywhere else, almost double what a seed company can expect from a Mid-South seed field. For example, a California planting seed field yields about 1,600 pounds of planting seed per acre. In Arizona, where there also has long been considerable seed production, it is 1,200 pounds. Texas 500 pounds and the Mid-South only 400 pounds.

More importantly, it is the reliability of seed production from the San Joaquin that has seed companies paying the price.

On average, SJV growers earn $50 to $100 per acre to grow cotton for seed, money basically to offset yield loss or reduced lint prices from non-Acalas or non-approved "California Uplands" as they are called under the San Joaquin Valley One-Quality Law. Gins are also compensated for processing planting seed.

Ugly stepchild

"California Upland" is considered the ugly stepchild of SJV cotton because when they first came into the valley, yields and fiber quality were clearly inferior to the Acala uplands.

However, California Uplands can out-yield Acalas in some conditions, growers have learned, and the discount for non-approved California uplands is getting smaller as fiber quality improves for non-Acala varieties grown in the valley. In fact, lint from the same varieties grown in Arizona or elsewhere in the Cotton Belt bring more money per pound when produced in California.

That discount has been as high as 10 to 12 cents per pound compared to returns for Acala varieties. Now growers are docked as little as 2.5 cents per pound by California merchants in marketing non-approved cottons.

While seed companies offer financial incentives for seed production, some SJV producers also are getting early glimpses of what is new elsewhere and what may be in store for the valley in the growing world of cotton biotechnology, specifically the Bt technology that is widely used elsewhere in the Cotton Belt.

California has lagged behind the cotton biotechnology boom, stymied by the San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board’s mandatory three-year testing program before an Acala or Pima variety can be put on the approved variety list. This held up the introduction of herbicide-resistant varieties compared to the rest of the Cotton Belt.

Over the past five years, though, herbicide-resistant Acala varieties been widely available and growers have readily adopted them with savings of $50 to $100 per acre not uncommon with the Roundup Ready and BXN or Buctril-resistant varieties. A new Roundup Ready Pima will be available this year. More than 40 percent of 2003 SJV cotton crop was planted to herbicide-tolerant varieties. Nationwide, 76 percent of the cotton acreage is planted to transgenic varieties.

Less acceptance

However, the biotechnology boom that has been the greatest benefit to the rest of the U.S. Cotton Belt, Bt or Bollgard cottons, has not found a place in the San Joaquin because they are not effective against worm pests found there.

The initial Bt technology was effective on boll-feeding lepidopteran pests like the pink bollworm, and those pests are not an economic problem in the valley.

However, the second generation Bt technology is effective against leaf-feeding worms found in the San Joaquin like the beet armyworm, yellow-striped army worm and cabbage looper, all potentially devastating pests for valley producer. In 2003, worm pressure was heavy in many parts of the valley, sparking interest in Bollgard II technology.

It will be several more seasons before the Bollgard II is available in SJV Acalas, many growers and University of California researchers are getting a sneak preview by producing seed from Bollgard II non-Acala varieties.

Fresno County UC Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor Dan Munk and UC IPM Advisor Pete Goodell have evaluated both the original Bollgard and Bollgard II technology. The initial Bt gene did offer some control on leaf feeding lepidopteran pests, however, Bollgard II was found to provide near complete control of those pests.

Now SJV growers are getting a first hand look at Bollgard II thanks to upland seed production. Five Points, Calif., producer John Diener has been a long time non-approved variety seed producer. He grew cotton with initial Bollgard gene and last year grew Stoneville’s new ST 4646B2R with the Bollgard II gene.

Better valley fit

Like Munk, Diener said he saw control of light worm pressure with the original Bollgard gene. While he did not have heavy worm pressure in 2003, he saw enough that convinced him Bollgard II has a better fit in the valley.

"We could see worm pressure starting, but it never made it to an economic level in the Bollgard II cotton," said Diener.

He said the Bt technology would be critical in the years when lygus pressure is heavy early, and growers are forced to repeatedly treat for plant bugs and consequently take out predators.

"I think we need to move forward on the Bollgard II gene for the Acalas," said Diener.

Diener is an innovator and grows seed partly because it allows him to look at new technology and new varieties. And ST4646B2R did very well as a variety. It yielded as well as Phytogen 72 for him.

"Farmers do not pick varieties because they are transgenic. They pick varieties for yield. We yielded three bales off the new Stoneville variety we grew for seed. We would have made more had it not been for the lygus pressure," he said.

Diener and fellow cotton producer Earl Merritt say fiber properties of the newer uplands they are now growing for seed are much better than the earlier varieties that came in the valley when it was opened up to all comers in 1999.

"We are not seeing the huge fiber discounts for the uplands we once did," said Diener, who said the Stoneville was docked only 2.5 cents from his Acala.

"You should get paid for what is in the bale these days and the new uplands we are seeing are getting close in length, strength and micronaire to the Acalas," said Diener.

Merritt grew about 700 acres of Upland varieties for seed this year, about 40 percent of the total cotton acreage on the Merritt family farms in Southern Tulare County.

Non-approved tags

Upland modules, trailers and bales are identified with non-approved cotton tags, and Merritt believes that is an unfair stigma.

"I think all varieties should stand on their grade cards," said Merritt.

In the beginning some Uplands were deserving of heavy discounts because of clearly inferior fiber compared to Acalas. "The quality of the uplands we are raising today have dramatically improved qualities, some virtually the same as approved Acalas," said Merritt.

This is not only a positive for seed growers in California like Merritt, but is proof that the quality bar is being raised elsewhere in the U.S.

This is reflected in the fact Merritt’s upland bales are docked only three to four cents per pound compared to the Acalas he grows.

"I was very happy with the Stoneville Bollgard II variety we grew last year. Luckily, we did not need it because worm pressure was light," he said. "However, in my mind there would be years in the valley when the Bollgard II gene would make a difference."

When it’s offered in an Acala variety, he would definitely try it in a side-by-side comparison with non-Bt cottons.

Transgenic traits aside, Merritt said he benefits from the uplands, which are more heat tolerant and perform better in what he calls tough soils.

"Acalas on good ground planted in April followed by a mild growing season are hard to beat in yield, and we have some great yielding Acalas today," said Merritt, who planted CPCSD’s Sierra and Riata, both Roundup Ready varieties.

Offsets discount

"However, I farm a lot of heavy, red ground and there the Uplands definitely yield more than the Acalas — enough that the yield advantage offsets the lint discount," he said.

Merritt is pleased that the herbicide-resistant side of biotechnology is available to him in Acalas as well as California Uplands. He hopes the new Bt technology can return the same financial benefits. He saves $50 to as much as $100 per acre with herbicide tolerant cottons. "We have not done any hand-hoeing in three years and have eliminated one cultivation, thanks to the herbicide-tolerant cottons. We layby earlier and are not out there in July root pruning with a cultivator," he said.

Merritt noted that the "California Uplands" uplands were allowed in after the 1998 El Nino year when rains and stormy well lingered well into the spring. Growers ran out of time to make a profitable Acala crop and growers demanded and won concessions that allowed shorter-season uplands into the valley.

The acreage swelled initially, but fell off dramatically with improved new Acalas; heavy discounts on the upland lint and fairly decent planting weather since 1999.

"We started growing the uplands because it got so late that year. It is comforting to know that they are now there if we ever have another year like 1998," said Merritt.

Diener, Merritt, Munk and Goodell believe the new era of Bollgard II Acala cottons will be welcome in the valley. The only question will be the cost of technology fees.

"You can pay only so much for insurance" said Merritt.

Munk believes the new generation of Bt cotton could become even more important with the new, less stringent plow-down regulations to accommodate growers who want to do less tillage and reduce costs.

Cotton acreage near a pink bollworm find is ineligible for the plow-down exemptions.

Exemption extension?

"Can or should the exemption be extended if growers in those areas grow Bollgard II cotton" as a deterrent to a pink bollworm infestation? questioned Munk.

There has even been talk of Bollgard and similar technologies now being developed by other companies replacing or supplementing the pink bollworm program that has been in place in the valley for almost 40 years.

This is a grower-funded program that maps valley cotton acreage each year and operates a huge network of pheromone pink bollworm traps to monitor for native pink bollworm. The program operated by the California Department of Food and Agriculture also blankets the valley each summer with millions of artificially reared sterile pink bollworm moths to overwhelm any native pink bollworms.

There is a new era of cotton pest control using biotechnology on the horizon for SJV cotton. If it proves half as successful as Bollgard has been for Arizona producers in bringing the pink bollworm under control, it will be an exciting era for the San Joaquin Valley.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com