With fingers crossed, Western cotton farmers eyed fair to good yield opportunities despite the season being far from over. While low pest pressures in California and Arizona can still mount, some Golden State farmers are facing tough cotton growing decisions amid evaporating water supplies.

California’s San Joaquin Valley

“The cotton crop in California’s San Joaquin Valley (SJV) in general is progressing fairly well,” said Bob Hutmacher, University of California (UC) statewide cotton specialist. With early irrigations and more favorable weather conditions now, many fields look quite good.

“Most locations have perked up since late May and early June. There is reason to be optimistic for a fair to good crop in many locations. Early March plantings in Kern County and pocket areas in Kings and Fresno counties contain advanced, good-looking cotton with high yield potential.” If lygus numbers stay low, some good yields could be achieved.

Some plants, which looked rough in many areas during evaluations in May from spring plantings, could face season-long low vigor and stand problems.

Limited water supplies and expensive costs are causing some farmers and consultants to light up Hutmacher’s phone, as well as the lines of UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors, agricultural consultants, and pest control advisors. The tough question is — what options are available to growers who face running out of water before finishing the cotton crop?

“To get a call that says, ‘I have six inches of irrigation water left for this field, when should I put it on?’ is something else,” Hutmacher said. “Some growers have worked hard at growing plants from a rough start, many with good early fruit set, and then must face having only six or eight inches of water left to finish out the crop.”

This makes decisions very difficult for growers trying to guess the impact of weather and pests on the rest of the reason, and limits how far they can push for higher yields.

If pumping or purchasing additional water supplies is not an option, Hutmacher offered this suggestion:

“Growers should examine how they can tone down yield goals especially with good early fruit retention. When plants move into the mid to peak bloom stage, then delay an irrigation to drag it out a little bit. In medium textured soil, this might include letting plants go for another five days plus or minus a couple beyond the normal irrigation schedule. The move will cause minimal to only moderate plant stress.”

Hutmacher proposed some alternate options — alternate row irrigation for late season irrigation, or shortening the irrigation run length to cut down on applied depths.

“Both options have their problems. If growers aren’t using pressurized systems (sprinklers and drip), then it is hard to reduce irrigation water applications by other methods.

If a grower is short of water, mid-afternoon leaf water potential can serve as a guide for delayed irrigations. Targets to produce moderate stress in Acala shouldn’t pass -20 to -21 bars, Hutmacher said, and not more than -22 to -23 bars in Pima.

“It buys you a little time as long as you’re not stressing the plants to wilting in the mid-afternoon. It’s one way to extend the bloom period and hopefully keep the plants in a better water stress status longer into the season.”

“For example, as a Pima boll’s fiber length and strength develop, keep it from extreme water stress for three to four weeks after the last boll blooms that you’re trying to mature.”

In a water-short year, it’s impractical to keep adding blooms and bolls late in the season.

Pest pressure in the SJV seems to be following expectations for dry years, with spider mite issues in some areas, but good beneficial populations and reduced lygus pressure at early season in many areas. Dry weather through the winter and spring caused typical weedy areas that provide habitat for lygus to dry down very quickly.

“I hope the overall pest pressure will remain light to moderate.” Growers have been careful in pest management this year, not jumping the gun to spray without first identifying the pest.

“That’s a good statement about integrated pest management. People are well trained or acknowledge that you need to know what’s out there in terms of beneficial insects and pests before spray decisions are made,” he said.

Meanwhile, cotton growers with corn, almonds, and other neighboring crops have launched early spraying for mite control.

“With more corn grown now for biofuels and dairies close to cotton fields, cotton growers are unwilling to take a chance for a major mite blowout caused by neighboring crops. I’m not aware of a lot of major problems, but I am aware that a number of people have put out materials for mite control.”

The soil borne fungus Fusarium Race 4 (Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. Vasinfectum or FOV Race 4) that causes vascular wilt in susceptible Upland/Acala and Pima cotton has shown continuing expansion in terms of affected areas within the SJV. Hutmacher is unaware of dramatic changes from prior years.

The fungus has been confirmed within small to moderate areas in fields that together might represent several thousand acres. Confirmed FOV Race 4 sites remain limited to Fresno, Kings, Tulare, and Kern counties.

“Seed companies, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and the UC, are conducting field screenings of Race 4 resistant materials in the SJV this year and some look pretty good in early ratings. I think we’re making progress on identifying some resistant materials.”

In summary, feasibility exists in 2007 for some four to five-bales per acre yields, but Hutmacher expects mostly moderate yields.

“Controlling costs will be one way to improve the chances for profit. A lot of growers will not have the water or the time to go for a four-bale crop in a year like this one, but there will be some good yields for those who hit the timing just right.”

Arizona cotton

Randy Norton, regional extension cotton specialist with the University of Arizona, said, “I’m excited about the 2007 Arizona cotton season. I think it’s shaping up well. We still have a long way to go, but we’re off to a good start.”

The phone calls Norton is receiving from growers are mixed — excited about the current cotton status, yet concerned over how cotton will fare in the next farm bill.

Mid-season cotton varied widely across the state.

“Yuma, Ariz. has a short cotton season. In terms of progression towards the end of the season, we have cotton in Yuma that’s being irrigated for the last time about now,” Norton said. “Some whitefly pressure has been reported as the melon crop dries down.” Cotton fruit load was good despite some heat stress.

Moving north along the Colorado River, heat stress has impacted the full season cotton crop in La Paz and Mohave counties with more stress expected. In cotton fields in southeastern Arizona around the Safford and Willcox area, cotton growth varies as the result of a cooler spring.

“About 15 percent of cotton was replanted in the Safford-Willcox area, compared with less than 5 percent estimated in other Arizona cotton areas.” Minimal pest pressures have included some lygus and stink bug.

Just a thunderclap away is Arizona’s summer monsoon or rainy season. As the monsoon approached, high humidity and heat blanketed the state’s cotton belt.

“Every monsoon brings positives and negatives. High humidity leads to increased fruit loss while added moisture means some areas might reduce irrigation.”

On July 12, 2007, the National Agricultural Statistics Service Field Office in Phoenix, Ariz., estimated 2007 Arizona Upland cotton acreage at 180,000 acres, down 10,000 acres or 5.5 percent from the 2006 crop.

“I think Upland acreage will total about 180,000 acres or perhaps slightly higher,” said Norton.

In yield potential, Norton expects slightly better than average yields of 1,100 to 1,200 pounds per acre. Actual yields will depend in part on heat stress levels through August.

Grower perspective

Buckeye, Ariz. cotton grower Steven Bales planted 100 acres of Upland cotton, Delta Pine 445 BR, on May 28. The cotton planting was late since it’s double cropped after winter ryegrass and 5-year-old alfalfa stands.

“I plant late for the rotation and double crop. I have a good water supply and like to use the three to four months in there,” Bales said. “With my retail alfalfa business, the rye grass gives me another option to sell to my customers.”

Bales stated that late cotton is looking good and beginning to square and bloom.

A fourth generation cotton farmer, Bales is a partner in the family operation called Bales & Bales II. In addition to cotton, the 2,500-acre farm includes alfalfa on 1,800 acres, 200 acres each of sorghum for silage and ryegrass, and 150 acres of oats.

“Instead of taking the old alfalfa out in the fall and prepping it to plant cotton, I keep growing alfalfa. Even with the weak stand, I get two to three more cuttings. While tonnage is down, alfalfa prices are good.”

“In ryegrass, I get three cuttings — a green chop cutting after the first of the year, a second cutting that’s baled if the weather cooperates, and then the third cut occurs in late April or early May. Once it’s baled and gone, I just go in, drop the planter, and plant cotton ‘on the flat’ (without rows).”

Flat planting in 100 to 125 foot borders enhances Bales’ profit potential. Minimized tillage work, simplified irrigation, and reduced fertilizer inputs due to leftover organic matter from the ryegrass and alfalfa saves Bales about $400 per acre.

“I’m planting in rich stubble which helps to spread the irrigation, keeps the soil mellow, and creates some shade. I just irrigate over the top. Flat irrigation works best when temperatures are in the 90s. With the warmer temperatures, cotton pushes up in about 72 hours.”

Cotton on the Bales’ farm experienced some whitefly pressure towards the end of the 2006 season. So far in 2007, pest pressures around Buckeye have been minimal to nonexistent. Depending on final pest pressure, Bales is hoping for a yield of two to two-and-a-half bales per acre in 2007.

“People in general are planting cotton later in this area (west of Phoenix). The dynamics of cotton has changed from the principal crop to something less than number one,” Bales said. “Guys don’t have the pressure to be watering the first legal day, March 15. You don’t see that anymore because no one wants to replant because it’s so expensive.”

Bales is first vice-president of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association, and is scheduled to take the group’s helm as president in 2008.