It was a growing season to remember in the spring and summer of 2004, but a fall California cotton growers would like to forget - at least two months of it.

Producers saw heat unit accumulations disappear in October faster than a cowboy’s sombrero in a West Texas dust storm when the weather suddenly turned cold and wet and stayed that way through November. There were two to three weeks left in the San Joaquin Valley picking season when producers’ hopes for icing on the biggest cake mother nature ever baked for them turned into a honest-to-goodness mud pie with record four- to six-inch rainfall totals.

Although there were some yield and quality losses from the wet fall, they were not so significant that they took the shine off of what producers call perhaps the best cotton year ever in the San Joaquin Valley. Four-bale fields were commonplace. Five-bale yields were not that rare.

Many producers did not escaped the fall rains, fog and heavy dew that delayed picking, but like Bill Stone of Stone Land Co., Strathmore, Calif., said, "Where would we have been this fall had we not had such a great start and growing season."

That growing season left Lowell Zelinski little to talk about as the chief organizer and speaker at the recent Central Coast Cotton Conference in Shell Beach, Calif.

However, the former University of California Cooperative farm advisor and now a private consultant, did not mince his words when he said given ideal growing conditions – especially the planting season – realistically no one should have been caught by the rain. The crop was made long before the October rains.

Heat units same

Although the difference between 2003 and 2004 could not be more dramatic, heat units for both years were the same. It was when they arrived that made the difference, according to Zelinski.

The planting season to first bloom in ’04 was perfect. "If you could not get a stand this year, maybe you had better start growing trees," he said.

By May 1 growers should have known what kind of year they would have, he added. The only deduct from a perfect start was a July hot spell, but it was not particularly damaging.

Although the weather was ideal, Zelinski said most pest control advisers, consulting agronomists, growers and others capitalized on it to make the best of a good growing season.

Premature cutout from heavily loaded plants was a threat to getting a really big crop, but Zelinski said he was impressed by the proactive approach taken to prevent cutout. "I heard talk in May of preventing premature cutout in the summer," said Zelinski.

Some of the mitigating practices Zelinski said were adjusting lygus treatment thresholds to hold squares, starting first irrigation earlier to prevent stress, using less Pix than normal and water-running extra fertilizer.

It was not a pest-free year, but pressure was low to moderate. "There were very few problems that could not be anticipated," he said.

Mite populations were low but widespread, according to UC IPM area specialist Pete Goodell. Mites were found on Pima for the first time this season, he added. There were migrating populations of lygus and pockets of aphids from Kern to Merced counties.

Build then collapse

"Aphid populations would build and then collapse," said Goodell, who had high praise for the integrated pest management efforts of PCAs who relied on parasites and reduced pesticide applications.

‘When plants are growing strong like they were in 2004, they can take a little more damage," said Goodell. "Success breeds success."

"This was a year when IPM was really practiced. There was a lot of monitoring going on and not much money spent on pesticides It would be nice to know how many times growers and PCAs made decisions not to spray," said Goodell.

Zelinski added he saw increasingly more growers leaving alfalfa strips to keep lygus in alfalfa and away from cotton.

It was such a good year, Zelinski said he knew one producer who foolishly planted untreated seed because planting weather was so ideal. "He was one of the few who replanted. Even in a good year, there is ample reason for seed treatments," he said.

Seed treatment may be even more critical in 2005. Zelinski surmised due to the 2004 wet, cool fall. Bad weather may have had an adverse effect on some planting seed.

"I would think it might be a wise decision to put on the full fungicide rates in 2005 rather than the bottom of the rate. And maybe a little high seeding rate for 2005 would not be a bad idea to guard against poor seed quality as a result of the 2004 fall rains," said Zelinski.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com