The San Joaquin Valley’s Pied Piper of precision agriculture and one of the innovators in reduced tillage and narrow-row cotton production continue to challenge the conventional, seeking answers to rising costs and reducing returns.

Both shared their latest efforts to reduce costs and or increase yields with consultants, growers and others at the recent Central California Cotton Conference in Shell Beach, Calif.

Kings County, Calif., farmer Ted Sheely is the valley’s precision agriculture Pied Piper, and he continues to challenge the conventional by going where no one has ventured before in dividing up fields and getting away from one-size-fits-all farming through computerized variable rate technology using aerial imagery and prescription farming.

His newest variable rate experiments using aerial imagery to write application prescriptions based on varying conditions within a field are in defoliation and irrigation. One proved remarkably successful financially, and the jury is still out on the second. These experiments follow successful variable rate applications of gypsum, nitrogen, cotton planting seed and plant growth regulators.

Soils on the west side of the San Joaquin can be variable and sodic. In the field where Sheely conducted the variable irrigation experiment, the SAR was over 12 — “pretty tough conditions.”

Obviously salts limit crop yields. One way to mitigate sodic conditions is to use expensive, hand-line sprinklers to leach out salts. However, like most West Side growers, Sheely delivers water to row crops using canals, ditches and furrows, which is less expensive than hand-moved sprinkler lines. And with laser leveling, flood irrigation can be highly efficient. However, it does not mitigate sodic conditions.

Incorporates imagery

Using aerial imagery from In-Time, Sheely and his consultant Brock Taylor divided up a large field in to 3 areas based on sodic soil conditions. Two of those areas were sprinkled early and then flood irrigated. One was flood irrigated from the beginning.

One area was sprinkler irrigated twice and in another, more sodic area, five times. After early season sprinkler irrigation, conventional flood irrigation was used to finish the crop.

“The same amount of water was applied to all three. The difference was the applications, “ said Sheely.

He added up the costs of sprinkler irrigation and balanced them against the added yield based on past yields within the three areas using harvester yield monitor data. For the twice-sprinkled area, he made 125 pounds more lint per acre with an income over expenses of $54 per acre. For the cotton sprinkled five times, he yielded 320 pounds more lint per acre with a profit of $173 after sprinkler costs were deducted.

The other new variable rate trial on Sheely’s farm involved defoliation, which averages about $18 per acre in cost.

Again, the trial field was divided into three areas for three defoliation treatments.

The premise behind the trial was partly to reduce defoliation cost, but more important to Sheely is the impact of defoliation rates the three-year project will have on lint quality.

For the first year, Sheely said he saved a little money on defoliation in some treatments using aerial maps and different defoliant treatments. One area it cost more than budget. One area of the field was not defoliated; a fact Sheely said “made me nervous.”

Quality goal

“This is not about saving material cost. Variable rate defoliation is about improving quality, and we will not know the impact of the three treatments on quality until we get all the grades back,” said Sheely. “Even if it improved quality minutely, it will be worth it.”

Dos Palos, Calif., producer Daniel Burns has a strong history with narrow-row cotton. For several seasons, he had recorded yield increases — some in the double percentage digits category — in producing cotton planted two rows per beds spaced 30-inches apart verses a single row of cotton per bed.

That made him a natural for the first public field test on growing 15-inch cotton, one of the newer cotton planting configurations getting a lot of publicity across the U.S. Cotton Belt.

There is noting new in growing cotton in rows narrower than 30-inches. However, what is new is the ability to harvest the cotton with a spindle picker, thanks to the development of a unique 12-row cotton spindle picker from John Deere spindle harvester.

This picker breakthrough is what convinced Burns to see if he could do the same thing with 15-inch cotton as he did with twin-row narrow-row cotton. (Deere does not like to call or identify 15-inch cotton as ultra-narrow row since it is gathered with a spindle harvester versus a brush or finger stripper, the normal harvesting method for UNR.)

Dilemma persisted

However, the dilemma of how to economically spindle harvest cotton planted in rows narrower than 30-inches did not go away as many had hoped, at least not for Burns after one admittedly challenging year of producing cotton in 15-inch rows on San Juan Ranch Burns manages.

Burns admits producing 15-inch cotton in less than ideal growing weather in ‘05 was a “tremendous challenge.” Getting a stand after more than 2 inches of rain almost scuttled the entire project which was set up with the University of California, Deere and San Juan ranch to compare the three methods of producing cotton — conventional single-row 30, twin-row 30-inch cotton and the 15-inch wide cotton rows.

He does not have yield data all the cotton, but he projects yields varied on the 15-inch cotton among the three fields he grew of it. It likely ranged from one bale to more than two, he guessed based on module count.

His goal in experimenting with 15-inch cotton was to continue to reduce costs by reducing tillage. The cotton in 15-inch rows was no-till and he estimates he saved at least $80 per acre over conventional 30-inch narrow row cotton and probably $50 over his double-row 30-inch cotton.

Adaptation problem

“Although we had a terrible year, I can see where 15-inch cotton has a fit — if you can figure out how to pay for the $380,000 cotton picker,” said Burns, who experienced difficulty in picking the 15-inch rows with a harvester that was not equipped with GPS guidance. The cotton was planted with GPS, but the AutoFarm units he uses on his tractors would not adapt to the Deere picker.

Deere has developed a 12-row cotton harvester with one row feeder equipped with a knife that slices off the plants and feeds them into an adjacent row where there is a spindle harvesting mechanism.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com