If last year’s San Joaquin Valley cotton season were a movie, they’d be handing out Oscars for it. It was one of the best production years ever with many farm averages above four bales and five-bale fields were common.

Just like the blockbuster movie maker, SJV producers can only hope the sequel in 2003 is another smash it.

University of California Extension Cotton Specialist Bob Hutmacher admits last season for most producers was perfect weather-wise; good planting conditions; mild growing season without any major early, or mid season insect pressure and ideal harvest weather.

However, Hutmacher told a cotton consultants seminar sponsored by Bayer CropScience recently it was no accident the statewide average for Acala yields in 2002 was over 1,400 pounds and the average Pima yield more than 1,300 pounds.

Management decisions during season to capitalize on ideal conditions contributed mightily to the great production.

Many of the farmers and consultants who did well played the season like the blackjack player who is dealt a 10 or 11 count. They doubled down like a good gambler would by taking full advantage of what nature offered up, and won.

"Flexibility" is what Hutmacher calls it and it paid off for many in a year like 2002, said the specialist.

"The bottom line is a lot of people took care of the basics last season and at the same time were willing to take some new approaches," he said. "It was not an accident good things happened last year."

Luck of draw

Growers know ideal growing condition can be elusive and just as quick as Mother Nature deals you and ace to cover a 10 on double down, she can also deal you a deuce.

For those who achieved four-bale yields last season, Hutmacher asked "how often can you realistically expect to achieve that goal every year." By that he means be ready to add inputs when conditions are favorable, but pull back on expenses when cotton gets off to a poor start or is hurt by weather or insects during the season. No need spending money if it will not give a profitable return.

There are a wide range of tools growers can use to maximize yields and one is the growing array of new Acala and Pima cotton varieties suitable to an equally wide spectrum of soil conditions. Growers are paying attention to putting high vigor plants on saline or poor soil conditions and moderate vigor varieties on strong ground.

"Match the variety to your soil conditions," said Hutmacher, who encourages producers to look at University of California or San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board variety trials results conducted in their specific area to evaluate variety selection.

Five-day heat unit forecasts are increasingly being heeded more.

Hutmacher is heartened to see planters parked when conditions are not forecast as good for planting. Not paying attention to planting weather forecasts can cost producers hundreds of pounds in yield losses.

While high plant populations in the 75,000 plant per acre still show yield declines compared to the 40,000-plant level, the difference is moderating with the newer varieties. he said. Nevertheless, make sure there are enough, but not too many plants for maximum yields.

Water monitoring

With increasing water costs and dwindling availability, irrigation monitoring and management are being taken more seriously. Hutmacher warns that plants with good root systems can stand moderate water deficiency to the seven or eight-leaf stage. However, from mid-squaring to peak bloom, water stress can result in yield loss.

Monitor soil moisture and measure leaf water potential, he suggests.

"Some of the newer varieties can tolerate a little more stress than older varieties," he said. However, he added, he still sees too much over irrigating of Pima cotton.

Apply plant growth regulators have become almost standard operating procedure, but Hutmacher said it is economically prudent to a vigor measuring technique to determine if a PGR is really needed. "Data from California and other parts of the Belt show that you can see a yield reduction with unwarranted plant growth regulator applications," he warned.

Good fruit set and a lack of lygus damage to set fruit can go a long way in regulating plant growth, he said.

Thrips damage

While most fields in the valley yielded well, other did not. Thrips damaged some fields early last season, and Hutmacher said he is changing his mind on the value of treating for thrips early. Where thrips damage is severe and there low soil moisture in the upper profile of soils, treating for thrips and advancing the first irrigation date may be a good idea, based on what he saw last year.

A malady generally described as "late season" decline was evident in some fields last year. It is a puzzling malady, but Hutmacher believes there are multiple stresses causing the collapse. These stresses are related to root damage by disease, heavy fruit load and a lack of nutrients in the plants when soil testing indicates there are adequate nutrients, especially potassium, in the soil.

Just because soil testing indicates adequate nutrients does not mean plants will not respond to late-season fertilizer.

"There were growers in Kern County last year who put on 30 pounds of late season nitrogen along with some K and achieved half a bale yields response," said Hutmacher.

It goes back to being flexible and monitoring plants closely.

While many producers achieved high yields last season, others did not because they were justifiably concerned about costs getting out of hand. Hutmacher encouraged those 2.5-bale producers to be flexible as well by examining alternative to what they are doing within the same budget restraints.

There may be new technologies and varieties that will give them higher yields at no additional cost, he noted.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com