Pinal County — Arizona’s top Upland cotton production area with 95,300 harvested acres in 2010 — is a great place to check the pulse on producers’ crop planting intentions for 2012.

About 40 cotton producers gathered at the Galloping Goose Restaurant in Coolidge in February to learn more about the high-yielding cotton varieties recommended this year by Monsanto-Deltapine and Dow AgroSciences-PhytoGen, the meeting sponsors.

The latest and greatest cotton varieties on the market drew producers’ interests. Yet the issue of limited water supplies amid volatile commodity prices was also definitely on producers’ minds.

Arizona agriculture is struggling through the 15th or so consecutive year of drought. For many Arizona farmers, short-term hopes of a wet winter have evaporated. Disappointing rain and snow levels have let farmers down once again. The bottom line is more fallowed farm ground in central Arizona along with higher alfalfa prices could shift cropping plans this year to less cotton and more alfalfa.

The National Cotton Council predicts a 7.5 percent reduction in U.S. cotton acreage this year.

Cotton producer Bruce Bartlett, a 32-year farming veteran, operates Bartlett & Bartlett Farms in the Coolidge and Eloy areas in Pinal County. His traditional crop mix includes upland cotton (60 percent), alfalfa (30 percent) and small grains — barley and wheat (10 percent).

Bartlett plans to grow 15 percent to 20 percent less cotton — about 2,600 cotton acres this year — and slightly more alfalfa (650 acres total) for two reasons. The first is extremely limited surface water allocations from the San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District (SCIDD) and second, higher prices for alfalfa in recent months.

About 75 percent of Brandt’s ground is irrigated with Central Arizona Project water from the Colorado River which is even more limited this year and more costly, along with well water. The other 25 percent of the acreage will receive a minuscule surface water allocation from the SCIDD this year. “I may idle about 550 acres due to the drought in the San Carlos (system),” Bartlett said.

The SCIDD captures rainfall, runoff, and snowpack melt in New Mexico and eastern Arizona where it moves into San Carlos Lake in Gila County. If full, San Carlos Lake would be Arizona’s largest lake. In reality, the reservoir is nearly empty on the water gauge — often 98 percent to 99 percent water deficient in recent years.

“This year the water allocation could be about less than one-half acre foot per acre,” Bartlett said. “The allocation last year was about 1 acre foot.”

Varieties

Where there is enough water available to grow cotton, Bartlett is excited about the latest cotton varieties on the market. This spring, Bartlett plans to plant Deltapine 1044 B2RF, plus possibly several PhytoGen varieties. Bartlett’s entire cotton acreage is flood irrigated.

Bob and Pat Cockrill, third-generation farmers, operate the 3,000-acre Cockrill Brothers Farms in the Coolidge area. Joining the brothers’ operation for the first time is nephew Jonathan Cockrill.

Last year’s crop mix included 1,600 acres of cotton, 600 acres of alfalfa, and the balance in wheat and barley.

“This year, we are cutting back on cotton because of the water situation (SCIDD),” Bob Cockrill said. “We will not plant cotton on the acreage in the SCIDD.’

The Cockrill family will make up for decreased cotton acreage with more alfalfa and grains. Some land will remain fallow.

“The winter rains haven’t come this year and the dams are not capturing much water,” Cockrill said.

As far as cotton varieties, the Cockrills will plant Deltapine 1044 BR2F which performed well last year along with Dyna-Grow 2570 B2RF.

“We grew quite a bit of Dyna-Grow last year and were pretty impressed with it,” Cockrill said. “When we followed the previous cotton crop with another cotton crop we liked the early vigor in Dyna-Grow. The 1044 variety in that planting situation did not perform quite as well. Ground planted in grain last year shifting to cotton this year will be planted in Deltapine 1044.”

Last year’s cotton crop was about equally planted with Dyna-Grow and Deltapine seeds. This year, Cockrill may plant a few bags of PhytoGen seed.

“I’m tempted after today’s meeting. We’ll probably have more discussions about this.”

The Cockrills typically plant cotton seed around April 20 — depending on ground and soil temperatures.

Chuck Boyd, pest control adviser with Fertizona in Pinal County, shared what cotton producers are telling him about planting intentions.

“There will be a lot of new alfalfa planted due to alfalfa price increases,” Boyd said. “Cotton acreage will increase in place of grains and corn … Most people, if they have the water, will grow cotton or alfalfa.”

“Those who have wells are in the best shape. This is the cheapest way to get water,” Boyd said. “Most people in this area are diverse with some project water and wells. This impacts a lot of people, especially in the Coolidge, Casa Grande, and Florence areas.”

Boyd believes cotton acreage overall will not see a large increase. Last year was a huge cotton year with substantial acreage increases across most of the Cotton Belt.

John Reding, Dow AgroSciences (PhytoGen) sales representative, described PhytoGen’s preferred varieties for Arizona including PHY 367 WRF, PHY 375 WRF, PHY 499 WRF, and PHY 565 WRF.

Paul Sawyer, Monsanto-Deltapine sales rep, said the company’s top four varieties for central Arizona are DP 1044 B2RF, DP 0935 B2RF, DP 1032 B2RF, and DP 1133 B2RF.

Arizona cotton producers produced the highest average Upland yields in the nation last year with 1,548 pounds per acre. Arizona also set the U.S. Upland record in 2010 with 1,517 pounds per acre.

California ranked second in the United States last year with 1,432 pounds of Upland Acala.

In Pima cotton, California topped the nation’s yields last year with an average of 1,376 pounds per acre (272,000 acres), followed by Texas at 1,038 pounds per acre (18,500 acres) and Arizona with 960 pounds per acre (10,000 acres).