The highest yielding Pima variety in last year's San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board trials began life in the valley as an Acala.

That may sound as implausible as a leopard changing its spots, but Hazera Seeds HA-195 is an improbable cotton. It's a true F1 hybrid cotton, the first to be sent down the path to commercial production in the valley.

It is an “inter-specific” variety, a cross between upland and Pima. Initially tested as an Acala, it's fiber properties exceeded Acala and when roller ginned, equals current SJV Pima qualities. Hazera asked that it be re-identified in the SJVCB testing program as a Pima. Merchants say the 2001 SJV production from 1,000 acres has been classed by the government as Pima, qualifying for the federal loan program.

It is not just another Pima. It has a distinct difference compared to its competition — hybrid vigor. It stands out among other Pima, especially on high producing ground. Its ranginess and vigor is obvious. However, that difference becomes its advantage in tough soil conditions where most other Pimas fall short of grower expectations.

It is an expensive difference. Planting seed costs almost $7 per pound. That hurls planting cost to about $70 per acre compared to $10 to $12 for non-hybrid cotton.

That seems to be the biggest drawback with growers who produced it on about in 2001. However, that drawback is mitigated by its exceptional yield potential on “marginal soils,” plus the seed is a fuzzy cottonseed and therefore not discounted like traditional Pima seed.

Niche expected

University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisors Bruce Roberts in Kings County and Dan Munk in Fresno County believe the Israeli seed companies hybrid cottons will find a niche in the valley.

Munk has tested it for three years and pronounces it a technological breakthrough because its yields have proven considerably higher Maxxa and S-7, the Pima and Acala standards for the valley. In last year's SVJCB variety trials for new entries into the three-year testing program, it outyielded the second place cotton by almost 500 pounds per acre in side-by-side trails. (1,708 vs. 1,216). It was not in the valley wide University of California trials of approved varieties last year, but the highest yielding average for the six approved varieties there fell about 300 pounds short of HA-195 in its trial.

“It is a value added product and one of the hottest things to come along in some time in terms of varietal development,” said Munk.

It is sizzling in the ears of producers and pest control advisors alike who have heard about it and want to plant it. However, Hazera Seeds agronomist Meir Gadisman said there would be seed for only another 1,000 acres in the valley this season.

“We can market a lot more seed than that this season based on the requests we have had, but there were problems with seed production,” said Gadisman. The seed is produced in Israel and China.

That is one of the biggest uncertainties with the crop. Seed production involves crossing sterile male and fertile female plants using bees. The process can take as long as two growing season and that is the primary reason for the high-priced planting seed.

“It did very well in 2001 in several locations in the valley,” said Gadisman. “We had 22 fields last year and more than half of them did what I call very well…recording a yield increase of 15 to 30 percent over other Pimas.

While Gadisman and others are encouraged about the prospects for Hazer, the seed company agronomist said, “We are still very much in a learning curve and development mode to find how hybrids fit a San Joaquin Valley niche.”

Likely farm fit

The fit for Hazera, if it clears SJVCB muster and wins release, would likely be for producers who are in the climatic Pima belt, but limiting soil conditions now preclude Pima as an option because current varieties will not yield well.

“In light soils Pima does not do well and in high saline or shallow water table soils the current Pimas do not do well,” said Munk. “Hazera 195 has shown it can yield very well under those conditions.

“It also can do well in high production areas,” added Munk.

However, it is the hybrid Pima's vigor that is attracting most of the attention.

Gadisman said it's vigor make it a low water user. Munk puts it another way: “I don't think we want to say it has more drought tolerance. I think we want to say it has a very high water use efficiency — it produces more cotton per inch of water applied,” said Munk.

Firebaugh grower

Firebaugh, Calif., farmer Marvin Meyers grew Hazera west of Firebaugh along the Interstate 5 corridor and it was on good Panoche clay loam soil.

“It yielded 3.6 bales per acre, all grade 2s, no deducts, excellent quality,” said Meyers. It used four inches less water than Pima HTO.

“We will plant it again this year, even though we know the seed supply will be short,” said Meyers.

“It has a great future in water short areas. We think we can reduce the irrigation by six inches over other Pimas and grow the crop on 20 to 22 inches of water,” said Meyers.

Meyers said the hybrid cotton does not need water early. He alternates irrigations on every other row. It will load and grow, “even if you're late with an irrigation,” he said. It defoliates like Acala and he picked it once.

“Aphids prefer it, but other insects are no more of a problem than other varieties,” he said.

Growth can be controlled by water management. “We Pixed it last year, but I think you can control the growth with water management.”

The Hazera cotton is characterized by long laterals with many double boll sets.

“I feel it could go four to five bales if everything is perfect,” said Meyers.

Rick Neuenschwander, farmer manager for Woolf Farming near Huron, Calif., agrees with the reduced water use assessments.

He produced 2.7 bales of Pima on just 15 inches of water total, including pre-irrigation. “It was sandy ground; fairly undulating and 100 percent sprinkled,” said Neuenschwander.

“The turnout was a little low, 29 percent and change, even by Hazera standards,” he added. A more typical HA-195 roller ginned turnout is 32 to 33 percent.

Nevertheless, Neuenschwander believes Hazera has a fit on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley.

It did not yield the popular Deltapine HTO Pima on the Woolf operation, but it not use nearly the water. “HTO outyielded Hazera by a quarter of a bale, but it took 10 more inches of water to get that quarter of a bale more,” he said. Ten more inches of water could be a luxury in a water-tight year for growers dependent on surface water.

“I think it has a place, especially where you are dealing with soil limitations,” said Erik Hansen of Corcoran, who grew 350 acres of the hybrid Pima last year.

While Hansen and Neuenschwander are pleased with what they saw in 2001, seed price and availability are the biggest concerns they have for the variety's future.

“Those are fairly significant numbers, more than $6 per pound. An up front cost like that is a risk, especially if you are looking at possibly having to replant,” said Neuenschwander, who said for it to be widely accepted by producers, it must be priced comparable to the transgenic technology fees.

“I think they will cut their potential market by 75 percent if they price the seed above the transgenic tech fees,” said Neuenschwander, adding however, that the value of the seed above what is now paid for the non-hybrid Pimas is a plus the Israeli cotton.

“While planting seed price may be an issue, I think we will find that Hazera's cotton is a value added product for at least a good portion of the San Joaquin Valley,” said Munk.

“Giving a grower who does not have a Pima option now the opportunity to grow ELS cotton and get 80 cents a pound or more for it is definite value added situation,” said Munk.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com