Mike Cox was a two-year-old toddler when his father Don grew the Cox family's first Imperial Valley, Calif., cotton crop in 1952, beginning a cotton growing tradition that has continued almost endlessly for more than a half century.

“Almost” only because one year the voracious silverleaf whitefly drove the Cox family out of cotton. However, they jumped right back in when control efforts were developed. Many others never returned.

The Cox family relishes the challenges of growing desert cotton and have grown it well for decades, overcoming adversities that made more than a few of their neighbors sell their pickers.

Mike and his younger brother Larry grew up in a cotton-farming family and as youngsters earned money working on the farm. However, their father “never encouraged” his two sons to go into cotton farming as careers, “but I never discouraged them either,” said the 77-year-old Cox.

Times were good in the desert valley made lush by Colorado River irrigation water when the Cox boys were growing up.

“The Imperial Valley is the best place in the world to grow cotton,” said Don Cox. “Probably ought to say it used to be the best place to grow cotton — before the insects came in.”

First it was the pink bollworm. Before the late 1960s and the first economic flush of pinkies, Don Cox said he yielded 4.5 bales of cotton with “one spray job and even that was doubtful if it was necessary.”

Mike grew his first crop in 1972 “I made 4.6 bales on my first cotton crop and did now know anything. I got 80 cents a pound for it, too.” recalled Mike. The year before the cotton price was in the 40-cent range.

High price eludes

“I have been trying to hit that combination of high prices and high yields every since,” laughed Mike. He has hit those yields, recording 5.44 5 bales two years ago. It is the high prices that have eluded him and all other growers. Mike admits candidly that without the federal farm bill, even high yields would not cover his costs.

“Dad helped me produce my first crop.” It was so big, the old John Deere 99 pickers would not make a half mile run — the baskets would not hold the crop. Mike and his dad hand-picked the roadways and then disked down the stalks to shorten the runs for the pickers.

“A passion for growing cotton is the legacy my dad has left me. He is a cotton grower who knows everything about growing cotton and loves it and he passed that on to me,” said Cox.

Mike has been well-schooled because he consistently and economically makes high yields and has earned the respect of his fellow growers. That is why Mike Cox of Brawley, Calif., is this year's Farm Press/Cotton Foundation Far West High Cotton Award winner.

Cotton growing was relatively simple for several decades after Don Cox grew his first crop. It is a considerably more formidable challenge today. Proof of that is in the fact that in the mid-1970s more than 120,000 acres were produced in the desert valley. In 2004 there were only 8,600 acres produced. Costs have driven down the acreage with the biggest bill being the one to control insect pests.

Cox has become an Imperial Valley cotton-farming survivor by learning how to control pests economically while coaxing the highest economical yields practical. High yield has been what has kept Cox in the cotton business.

“I have to produce 4.5 to 5 bales of cotton each year just to survive because of the costs we have,” said Cox, 54. It is a challenge every year when he plants the seed, but it is one he seizes and faces with zeal.

Mike does not know his final 2004 yields because it has been an uncharacteristic wet fall. He has picked enough to figure he has made his 4.5 to 5 bale target.

Full-season cotton

For the previous 4 seasons he has averaged 5.38 bales in 2000; 4.7 bales in 2001; the 5.44 in 2002 but dropped off to 2.84 bales in 2003.

Last year he planted a full-season cotton he had not grown before on a field he had not farmed previously. “I planted late and in July it was over 110 degrees for three weeks at peak bloom. It threw off every flower and square.”

Intense whitefly pressure produced leaf crumple, stunting boll development.

“It was my worst yield in 30 years of cotton production,” admitted Cox.

Nevertheless, he bounced back this year because he knows he can grow high yielding cotton.

“Mike loves to grow cotton more than any other crop,” says wife Jody.

Silverleaf whitefly actually drove Mike and many desert growers out of cotton in 1992 and 1993, but he jumped back in when abatement strategies were developed and new chemistry introduced to bring the whitefly under control. Before whitefly it was boll weevil, budworm-bollworm and pink bollworm. Today it is lygus.

Mike's passion for the crop does not overshadow the reality that it must make money on his farm. Right now cotton profits are carrying several of his other crops. Besides cotton, Mike also produces sugar beets, durum wheat, Sudangrass, alfalfa, canola seed and seed onions. He farms about 1,000 acres and also farms in partnership with his dad and brother and other family members.

It takes more effort to grow cotton than most other desert crops, but Planters Ginning Co. manager Bob Bedwell says, “Mike always puts in the extra effort with his cotton crop. He does what he is supposed to do when it needs to be done. He is a real hands-on cotton producer.”

Herman Meister, agronomy farm advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension and a former independent pest control adviser, said Cox's “hands-on management approach and keen field observations have helped him make the correct decisions on all the crops that he grows.” Meister nominated Cox for the High Cotton Award.

Bt, Roundup Ready

Cox was an early adopter of the new Bt and Roundup Ready technology to reduce pesticide use and lower his bottom line, said Meister. His IPM practices include using least-disruptive pesticides to suppress pest populations, and he organizes his alfalfa harvest to mitigate lygus movement out of alfalfa and into cotton.

“IPM strategies and principles form the basis for his weed and insect control practices,” added Meister.

Mike has seen several evolutions in cotton production as a youngster growing up in Imperial as well as a veteran producer, but none captured the imagination of producers like the plant growth regulator Pix.

“I have been working with it for 10 years to avoid excessive growth and set more cotton,” said Mike. It has also been a contributing factor in spacing plants closer and production practices like planting two rows per bed or ultra-narrow row cotton, a new concept introduced into Imperial by a San Joaquin Valley cotton producer.

Now with Bt varieties to ward off late season pink bollworm, desert cotton growers can stretch the season for higher yields.

Make that stretch the two seasons in one year.

Cox says timely planted and well-managed cotton will set 2.5 to as much as 3 bales early in the season before it goes into infamous cutout when the heat literally suffocates the plants and they stop growing — with many more weeks of growing season left.

Cox encourages that early set with a light (one-quarter pint) of Pix in the spring at early or peak bloom. Then around July 4 high day time temperatures of 110 to 115 degrees and more importantly excessive nighttime temperatures where it never cools down below about 85 degrees shuts down the cotton.

Basically, it is so hot during the day, cotton quits breathing, explains Don Cox.

Restarts crop

Mike Cox restarts the cotton with a fertilizer shot because he is looking for high yields and then “hammers” the crop with one pint of Pix the second or third week of August, compacting the plant and encouraging fruit set, driving toward fall harvest and those 4.5 to 5 bale yields.

Next season he is thinking about borrowing a page from growers in the Blythe area north of Imperial Valley who are compressing the season and avoid two-set cotton. “I hear more and more talk about applying potassium to avoid that hard cutout and put on another bale through what would be the normal cutout period and then terminate the crop in August. I understand it is producing some really good yields.

“I believe that if we can do that here in the Imperial Valley it will allow us to get out earlier; avoid some insect control costs and improve our lint quality,” said Cox.

“If Mike can do that, it will make a big difference,” said brother Larry, who is primarily a vegetable producer who grows cotton ahead of winter vegetables. He calls himself a low input, short-season cotton producer compared to Mike's approach of maximizing yields.

Cox has switched to planting two cotton rows on a 40-inch bed, copying a technique developed by another High Cotton Award winner, Daniel Burns of Dos Palos, Calif., in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Daniel has double rows on 30-inch beds. I tried that, but I could not control the irrigation water on half-mile runs,” he said. He first tried double row 40s five years ago, and this year all his cotton is on twin rows on 40-inch beds.

SJV cotton grower Brian Hair ventured into Imperial Valley several years ago planting a large acreage of ultra-narrow row cotton and picking it with stripper harvesters.

Ultra narrow system

“It sure made us look at the way we were growing cotton,” said Larry Cox. “There is enough variability in the ground in the valley that an ultra narrow system might just work on some of this ground.”

Mike agreed. “That cotton looks pretty darn good at the gin, and it is a lot cheaper to harvest with a stripper than a picker,” Mike said.

Hair has cotton planted as close 15 inch rows.

“What I am doing with a double row 40 is the same as planting in 20-inch rows. I think Brian's high density planting has made us look at things differently,” said Mike.

“It is refreshing to have people come in and try new things by trial and error. You cannot get in a rut in this business or you will not survive.”

To understand the history of Imperial Valley cotton is to appreciate what the Cox family has accomplished to stay in cotton virtually continuously for more than half a century.

It has been a battle against odds only the resilient could beat. Pink bollworm and cotton boll worm-budworm numbers have been so overwhelming in the past, worms were virtually uncontrollable. Synthetic pyrethroids got their start in Imperial Valley trying to control pinkies. Bt cotton has also a key part of the pinkie battle. More than 85 percent of the valley's acreage is in Bt cotton.

“We are spraying for whitefly in our late fields with pesticides that knock down the pinkie that may be developing in the refuges or in the conventional cotton,” said Cox.

In the past pink bollworm moths blew into the Imperial Valley from Mexico in mid-August, but Cox has been noticing less of that. Bt cotton is starting to be grown in the Mexicali Valley.

“We are hoping to be included along with the Mexicali/San Luis area of Mexico in the eradication effort that has been successful in Texas, New Mexico and Mexico that hopefully will be expanding into Arizona,” said Cox.

Silverleaf whitefly have been so thick they turned cotton plants and lint black with sooty mold only to be turned back by abatement strategies and new insect growth regulators used in a farmer-driven stewardship program.

Challenge grows

“We can still grow tremendous cotton in the Imperial Valley,” said Mike Cox. “It is just more challenging than it has probably ever been, but we have been able to meet those challenges so far.”

Asked what they would say to someone who wanted to be an Imperial Valley cotton producer, Larry and Mike laughed and said they would suggest: take two aspirins and go to bed.

“You really need to know what goes on here,” said Mike.

“My dad taught me a lot, but among very important lessons I'll never forget, one is to understand what is going on under the rows.”

Perched, salty water is a yield robber. “You have got to pay attention to the sumps and drainage system. I you don't, you'll pay for it.”

Matching fields to crops is the other lesson Don taught his sons. Making the wrong match-up can be costly, said Mike.

Mike says what cotton growing success he has enjoyed has come from the legacy of his dad and the support of his brother.

“The knowledge and love for growing cotton that I gained form my dad has been a blessing, and no one has been more supportive and accommodating than my brother,” said Mike.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com