Last year's cotton planting season in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valley was too easy, and most growers know it. They were grateful. However, the 2005 planting seasons is close at hand and it has been a very wet winter heading into that March planting time.

“On the positive side, the snow and rainfall we've received this winter should help with water allocations,” says Bob Hutmacher University of California Extension cotton specialist. “We can dry out fairly quickly if the storm patterns die out by mid-February. But if it stays wet into March or April, we could see the whole cotton season pushed back.”

Hutmacher says the majority of cotton growers are cautious about planting in cool, wet conditions. Most follow the heat unit forecast developed by UC, and those who push for an early planting date may bump their seeding rate under less-than-favorable conditions to assure a good stand. He says growers who use lower seeding rates still put down 12 to 15 pounds of seed per acre, while growers who seed deeper for soil moisture on rougher ground are planting 20 or more pounds of seed per acre to improve their stand.

Hutmacher says using a broad-spectrum seed-applied fungicide can also help get the crop off to a good start. University of California field trials have demonstrated that seed-applied fungicides will improve stands by 10 percent to 40 percent in six out of 10 years.

“Seedling diseases usually attack certain parts of the field, resulting in an inconsistent stand of healthy and unhealthy plants that can complicate management decisions the rest of the season,” says Lowell Zelinski, owner of Precision Ag Consulting, Templeton, Calif.

Replanting costly

Given the rising investment producers make in seed and technology, says Zelinski, no grower wants to be forced to replant. “At a dollar a pound for seed, it's not that big a deal if you lose 10 percent of your stand to diseases,” he points out. “However, when you start spending over $4 a pound for a premium, stacked-gene variety, or $6 a pound for Hazera hybrid seed, the economics of protecting that seed become a lot more important. The additional cost of treating that seed with a quality fungicide is miniscule compared to your seed investment.”

Replanting doesn't just mean an extra investment in seed, labor and tractor time. Zelinski says. “If you don't get the crop replanted until April 20, you could lose as much as 25 percent of your yield potential,” he explains. “That doesn't have to happen very often to make your investment in seed protection pay off.”

Jim Ashford, who produces 2,000 acres of cotton with his father at J & K Farms at Five Points, Calif., and manages another 2,500 acres of cotton for the nearby Britz Ranch, was among the state's producers who were forced to replant much of their cotton following high levels of disease pressure in 2003. Last season, he began treating the majority of the cotton he grows and manages, including Pima, with a Gustafson treatment package.

It is called California Premium Cotton Amendment System and features Allegiance (metalaxyl) fungicide for protection against Pythium; Baytan fungicide for proven performance against Thielaviopsis and Rhizoctonia; Vitavax fungicide for additional Rhizoctonia protection and protection against seedborne diseases; and Kodiak biological fungicide for protection against Rhizoctonia and Fusarium after traditional chemical seed amendments have been exhausted.

“We're always concerned about seedling diseases and the impact they have on our crop management system and our yields and earliness,” says Ashford. “We have a wide variation in our cotton ground; the seed stays in the ground for up to 10 days in some of our salty ground, while our crop can be out of the ground in five or six days on the land closer to the foothills.

Plan for worst

“Our philosophy now is to plan for the worst and hope for the best. After going with the California Premium Cotton Amendment System last season, we didn't have to replant a single acre, and most of our cotton made a 3-bale crop.”

The costs of an irregular stand don't stop with replanting. Zelinski says variable stand growth due to seedling disease can complicate the timing of Roundup applications. Roundup Ready cotton should be treated with Roundup only up to the 4-true-leaf stage.

“So when the cotton squares bloom, the first one or two fruiting nodes will not develop viable pollen, causing you to lose those bolls,” he says. “That means that when seedling diseases result in slow emergence and an inconsistent stand, growers who wait to spray until the majority of their crop is at the 4- to 5-true-leaf stage risk damaging the healthiest plants in the field.” Seed companies are expecting a sharp increase in RR varieties this season.

Zelinski adds that the management problems resulting from an inconsistent stand can extend all the way through harvest.

“If part of your crop is ready for harvest while you're still waiting for the rest of the bolls to mature and open, you can run into quality problems, particularly if weather moves in and affects the quality of early bolls.”

Cotton growers say their investment in a quality fungicide is quickly repaid by a quick start, a uniform stand and a consistent harvest, regardless of weather conditions.

“I want my Pima and Acala cotton to come up fast; last spring it literally exploded out of the ground and just kept growing,” says James Walker, who grows Pima Deltapine 340 and Phytogen 800 cotton near Fresno. “If the weather turns against us, we want a seed treatment we know will help us avoid seedling diseases. We want the best treatment package possible, and that's the California Premium Package.”