Any season that gives a cotton farmer a five-bale field is going to be a good year.

When 5.03 bales per acre came out of a field of Riata RR at JFB Ranch near Firebaugh, Calif. AFTER it had been soaked with 3.5 inches of early fall rains, it becomes not just a good year. 2004 became an incredible season.

It was a once-in-a-career year for veteran San Joaquin Valley farmer John Bennett, president of JBF Ranch, his superintendent Pete Franco, and their peers as California set records for upland yields at 1,525 pounds per acre and 1,503 for Pima. Even unseasonably heavy October rains did not do that much to dampen the almost unbelievable cotton growing season in the garden spot of the U.S. Cotton Belt, the San Joaquin Valley.

“If we have another year like 2004, we will faint,” laughed Bennett, who has been farming in the valley since 1971.

Five-bale ‘04 SJV cotton was not uncommon. Many fields went well over four bales. In the Southern California desert some fields reportedly broke the six-bale plateau.

JFB Ranch yield average is about 3.75 bales per acre. Bennett's ground is not the best in the valley, which makes 2004 high yields even more satisfying.

However, five-bale cotton does not come by sitting in the office, looking out the window watching plants set bolls. Bennett credits Franco for taking full advantage of the exceptional growing conditions.

“Pete does all the farming. I just write the checks,” said Bennett.

He obviously does more than that. For one thing he made the decision to move into a new direction on his farm.

Drip irrigation arrived at the JFB Ranch in '04 like it has on many SJV row crop operations over the past few years.

Bennett and Franco installed 178 acres of underground drip and all the necessary filtration before last season at a cost of $750 per acre.

Bennett has been considering installing buried drip irrigation systems for years and last year made the commitment for many reason — increasing water and labor costs and a perched water — to name the three most important.

Lowered expectations

“It was the first year, and I told Pete I did not expect any great water savings or big yield increases with the drip field since this was the beginning of learning process on how we could best make drip work,” said Bennett.

Drip saved a little water. However, JFB Ranch was already highly efficient in water use before, growing cotton and tomato crops on as little as 24 inches of water using conventional sprinkler or furrow irrigation.

However, Franco did save money on drip. He said he used no preplant fertilizer and cut his in-season fertilizer use by 50 percent delivering nutrients through the drip system. There were also fewer weeds with drip, therefore, tractor trips were reduced. Those were not unexpected benefits.

The surprises were the cotton and tomato yields.

“Our first drip field did not go on the best ground, but it produced the best cotton yield and best tomato yield — by 10 tons per acre,” said Bennett. It the first cotton field planted and the last harvested, starting Nov. 30.

“No one is going to believe five bales after almost four inches of rain fell on the field,” said Bennett.

A field of Sierra RR next to the drip-irrigated Riata RR went 4.58 bales per acre. “The field where the Sierra was planted has always outyielded the field where the Riata was planted,” said Franco. That reversal made the five-bale field even more satisfying.

The drip is installed to irrigate tomatoes on 72-inch beds and cotton on 36-inch beds.

JFB Ranch is a 6,000-acre farm, primarily a cotton/tomato operation with smaller acreages of garlic, onions, melons and alfalfa hay. There are about 3,800 acres of cotton each year on the ranch. Bennett owns a gin and is a partner in a tomato processor as well and his farm feeds those investments.

Technology revolution

The move to precision, micro irrigation is part of the remarkable technological evolution Bennett has seen in the last decade. He cites the rubber track Challenger, electronic sorters on tomato harvesters, precision farming and GPS/GIS tractor guidance system, transgenic cottons and a new array of cotton varieties as major as some of the more remarkable new technologies.

“Roundup Ready really pays off for us with the cotton/tomato rotation,” said Bennett. “I think tomato seed comes with nightshade — at least it seems like it.” We never had nightshade until we started growing tomatoes.” Without the herbicide-resistant technology, Bennett said cotton weed control costs would skyrocket.

“We also know Riata is a good yielding variety for us, even without the technology,” said Franco. “I think we get our technology fee back in added yield.”

The California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors Riata was not the only variety grown on the Bennett ranch last season. There were also Phytogen varieties 72, 78 and the new 710R. CPCSD's Summit and Sierra also were in the variety mix as well. However, Riata is the mainstay, said Bennett.

Bennett admitted heavy rains knocked considerable Phytogen 72 on the ground last fall compared to the CPCSD varieties. “However, we need 72 in our variety mix because it can be a lot earlier than CPCSD varieties. We need all the varieties and all the chemicals we can get to do the best job we can,”

Bennett is putting in another 300 acres of drip this season, a decision made before the five-bale field was logged.

He is moving to drip to eventually make hopefully a sizeable dent in his water costs of $90 per acre. He also expects it to reduce labor costs. One irrigator, believes Franco, can manage 1,000 acres of drip-irrigated cotton. JFB Ranch now has as many as 30 irrigators

Lower weed costs

Bennett also expects weed control costs to go down. “We should have no dodder with drip. I do not know about nutgrass. Deep seeded weeds can still come up from six inches below the surfaces and grasses could still be problem. Overall, because we are not wetting the entire surface, there should be fewer weeds. However, I do not expect to abandon herbicide resistant cottons.”

Bennett expects drip to really shine on marginal soils. “That is where we will see big improvements in yields. The first field where we installed drip is sort of a mediocre field, and you see what happened there.

“However, I think eventually more drip will start going into what they call candy soils in Westlands Water District around Huron, one of the highest yielding area of the valley. Rising costs will eventually push those areas into drip.”

Even more important than that cost savings and higher yields, drip on row crop ground may actually keep Bennett and his neighbors in farming. JFB Ranch, like hundreds of others in the valley, is plagued by a perched water table. Seventy-five percent of JFB fields have drainage systems.

Farmers like JFB in Panoche Irrigation District will soon be cut off from their out-of-district drain water removal outlet. When the current outlet is gone in about four years, drain water will be left either in the district or on farms in ponds to be treated and re-used or evaporated away. It will undoubtedly drive up the cost of water for the district to manage the drain water. The best solution to perched water is to not create it.

What that means is that farmers like Bennett, who is Panoche's board chairman, will try as best they can to reach 100 percent water efficiency.

Drainage issue

“I don't think we can achieve total efficiency, but we have to try. With drip you can place the water right where the plant needs it and very little is flushed below the root zone, if it is managed properly,” said Bennett.

“The drainage issue is huge for us. Unless we can solve the problem, we are talking about thousands of acres going out of production.”

He also believes the cotton/tomato rotation can be altered with drip and improve income.

“Right now we cannot go back-to-back tomatoes. We like to stay out of tomatoes for 3 years — at least two for sure because of diseases and weed pressure,” he said. “We may be able to go back-to-back tomatoes with drip or at least cut back the cotton rotation.

We are still learning about drip.”

The drip field was installed with GPS technology.

“We bought our first GPS guidance system three years ago. We were so excited after we saw what it could do that first year, we bought two more the following year. This year we will add two more. All of our heavy work and planting will be done with GPS,” said Bennett.

The GPS systems have proven to save 20 percent on tractor time and labor costs.

“These are very exciting times in agriculture with all the new technology. I only wish the economics were a little better,” said Bennett.

“We are spending a lot of money on this new technology like drip and tractor guidance systems so we can be more efficient. I think the savings will pay off and keep us in business,” he said.

Asked what he would put at the top of his new technology wish list, Bennett paused for a moment and said, “I'd like to have last year all over again. It demonstrated the real potential we have to produce in this valley when the growing season is perfect,” he said.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com