These may be the dog days of August, but for San Joaquin Valley cotton producers their cotton crop has the look of a streaking, lean greyhound driving to cross the finish line a winner.
“Generally, everyone is pretty high on this year’s crop in the valley,” says Earl Williams, president of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations.
University of California Extension Specialist Bob Hutmacher agrees: “The crop looks quite good overall — knock on wood. We have had no terrible localized hot spots like we did last year.”
The only disappointments with the 366,000-acre crop are the market prices being offered for both Pima and Acala, although there has been some slight improvement of late. 224,500 acres of this year’s valley crop is Pima. The rest is Acala/Upland. The total acreage is down almost 21 percent from last year’s 454,000 acres.
“It is the best crop I have seen in a long time. It loaded up quickly, and we are already to cutout in most areas,” says Steve Wright, UC Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor for Kings and Tulare counties.
It’s a bit early to put a hard number on potential yield, but Williams says 1,400 pounds of Pima per acre and 1,500 pounds of Acala are attainable average yields with the current crop conditions.
Taking some of sting off the low prices is the fact that lygus, mite and other pest pressure has been generally low to this point in the season and that has helped reduce grower costs, particularly in the mid and south Valley, compared to the past two years.
Hutmacher warns, however, that the threat of aphids and whiteflies remain, and growers must be vigilant to bring this crop in without honeydew damaging the lint.
This is another irrigation water-short year in the valley and lower value cotton is usually shorted on water. Growers will use available, high quality surface water for higher value, permanent crops like almonds, pistachios, walnuts and grapes or vegetable crops like contracted processing tomatoes, broccoli or garlic.
It is a gamble for growers to plant cotton in a water-short year if the season drags on and they run out of water before setting a profitable crop. However, the water gamble paid off in 2012 for many growers who saw their plants load fruit early.
When cotton loads heavily early, growers end up with short stature fields. Some fields look like miniature greyhounds. Hutmacher says there are many boll-laden fields with plants only 18 to 24 inches tall in early August. Fruit set has been good valley wide, even in the northern reaches where growers got a later start than they wanted. The short-stature fields are normally found in areas where growers have a short water supply or soil conditions limit growth.
“These short plants blooming in early August remind us we have water issues in the valley,” says Hutmacher. This year, however, those short plants are holding good yield potential. “You may not make 4 bales from them, but it is not unrealistic to expect 2.5 to 3 bales with excellent quality lint, if we play our cards right from here on out.
“The best available plant growth regulator (PGR) is fruit retention,” muses Hutmacher. Lygus and heat are the two biggest fruit drop factors. Lygus has been light season-long. Even though the temperatures have been well above 105 several days this summer, nighttime temperatures have not been high. This has allowed the cotton to tolerate the heat by respiring in the evening.
Good water/bad water
Cotton, once a 1.5-million-acre crop in the valley, has become the ugly cousin as permanent crops have offered far more income potential. Couple that with an increasingly limited water supplies, and cotton will always get shorted on water.
It also plays into the good water/bad water scenario. When surface water deliveries are short, growers rely on wells. However, this water is usually salty or poorer quality. Cotton can tolerate this poor quality water better than other crops, therefore, well water goes to cotton and good surface water to less salt-tolerant crops like almonds. “You may have only 15 percent of the farm in almonds, but when those almonds have a bumper crop and record prices, that is where the water will go,” says Hutmacher.
Although cotton has suffered financially in recent years, it is a row crop many producers continue to want to incorporate into their crop rotation, especially for crops like processing tomatoes, says Williams.
“Weeds are an issue following tomatoes, and Roundup Ready cotton is a way to take care of that issue,” says Williams. It is imperative garlic is rotated out of fields for at least four years to control white rot and cotton can be a good choice there. “Cotton fits in a row crop rotation, especially the west side of the valley.”
Unfortunately, cotton is not always the rotation crop of choice, due to its price and potential water demand.
Drip irrigation has helped keep cotton around by reducing its water requirements. Some growers with good water supplies have utilized drip to spoon feed and push cotton to those 4-bale, long-season yields. “These growers are not satisfied with 3-bale yields and their whole production scheme is to push the nutrients and water to maximum yields.”
Much of the drip in cotton was installed in fields first for vegetables and cotton benefitted from drip in rotation. However, increasingly more growers are turning to drip for cotton first.
Hutmacher said there are a fair number of fields where water supplies are restricted and drip can stretch available water. Here growers practice what could be called precision deficit irrigation.
Hutmacher says growers in this situation deficit irrigate at 60 percent to 75 percent of the evapotranspiration rate for cotton. They will likely pre-irrigate with sprinklers to save water versus furrow irrigation and follow with a sprinkler first irrigation.
Then they will lay down pressurized, surface drip irrigation tape down every other row to manage deficit irrigation more closely the remainder of the year, making a crop on less water than furrow irrigation.
While some of this early cutout/good yield production was planned, others are suffering from cutout. “We definitely have a significant number of fields that likely will have some reduction in yield potential due to plant growth regulator rate choices, weather and delayed irrigation.
Wright has found the same thing. “I have talked to a few growers who are disappointed at this point in the season. They could have gotten more from this season. This is the type of season you could get four bales on longer season cotton if you did everything right on time.”
While much of the cotton is short and blooming out the top in cutout, one of the positive things he has seen is more fruiting positions on the plants.
“You can make a 3-bale crop on as few as 10 nodes, but we are seeing 10 to 12 nodes, which means the plant can keep going and push those third and fourth positions laterally,” says Wright.