The acreage of ultra narrow row (UNR) cotton or variations thereof will likely double this season in California and Arizona over last year. However, it will remain a minute part of the anticipated 1.2 million acres expected to be seeded this spring.
Last season there were approximately 7,500 acres in both states. This season that could reach 15,000 acres. The increase will all come in California, including an anticipated 5,000 acres in California's Imperial Valley.
Enthusiasm and interest in UNR continues high as cotton prices continue to be the lowest in decades. UNR has proven to increase yields by as much as a third of a bale per acre but perhaps more importantly it cut costs from $25 to more than $175 per acre. And in the case of desert cotton, it has proven to improve quality.
California and Arizona have lagged behind the rest of the U.S. Cotton Belt in jumping on the latest cotton plant-crowding craze, but the West has been here before.
The West is picker country, and UNR is stripper cotton. Heavy trash-producing brush and finger stripper harvesters were tried here 20 years ago to harvest rows growing less than 38 inches apart. However, they were sent packing because of the trash they generated and other problems.
Now rows more narrow than ever are coming back with the advent of herbicide-resistant cottons to control weeds and effective plant growth regulators to control height and hasten maturity...and subsequently reducing trash. Newer, more effective defoliants are also available now as well as harvesters that produce cleaner seed cotton.
Confirm more cotton Researchers from both states confirmed scientifically at this year's Beltwide Cotton Conference in Anaheim, Calif., that producers from California and Arizona can get more cotton per acre while saving input, mostly related to reduced hand-hoeing thanks to herbicide resistant cottons.
And in Arizona, micronaire can be improved considerably with brush and stripper harvested cotton. This could be a major driving force in the desert in switching to stripper harvested ultra narrow-row. Desert picker cotton is often heavily discounted for high micronaire.
The West has not had an aversion to crowding plants to get more yield per acre. After all, 30-inch narrow-row cotton originated in California's San Joaquin Valley and spread across the U.S. Cotton Belt.
Merced County in the northern San Joaquin is where one of the first straddle-row, 30-inch cotton pickers was developed. Narrow-row cotton was quickly adopted after that and later both picker manufacturers offered narrow-row on their factory machines.
Merced County is also where the California version of UNR - two rows of cotton seven inches apart on a 30-inch bed - has shown consistently higher yields at less cost for three years running.
Merced County farm advisor Bill Weir and a pair of progressive producers, Ken Van Loben Sels and Daniel Burns, have validated yield increases of almost 9 percent three years ago to a little less than 7 percent in 2000 from two rows seven inches apart on a 30-inch bed vs. a single row.
And overall production costs were reduced by from $25 to almost $60 per acre, according to Weir. The only added costs were extra seed and more plant growth regulator than conventionally spaced cotton.
Last year's 6.6 percent yield increase is particularly significant, according to University of California Extension cotton specialist Bob Hutmacher, because it was an overall, high yielding year statewide.
Initially, Weir and the producers had planned to harvest the test plots with a brush harvester three years ago. However, the experimental brush harvester never arrived, and the harvest was successfully accomplished with pickers gathering two rows into a single head.
With a yield increase of almost 9 percent that first year, Weir and his cooperators forgot about the stripper and its inherent extra trash. The second year yields increased an average of 8.4 percent.
Planting became the biggest stumbling block. Producers have successfully planted two rows atop a bed with shop-rigged sled planters of offset old 7100 John Deere planter units. However, it is too slow for large acreage planting. Growers hope to have a newer, more efficient planter in the future.
"We are now looking at planters that can do a much better job than what the growers have rigged up," said Weir. "The planter was the reason we did not have more than 300 acres last year. It was too inefficient. If we can get a new planter, we will have a lot more of the two rows to a bed."
Mixed results Hutmacher said tests in other parts of the San Joaquin Valley using the double row 30 California UNR have had mixed results.
"Results have been split in small research plots," said Hutmacher. "We have not recorded a yield decline in double row 30 in trials in Fresno and Kern counties, but we have recorded only one year of yield increase in test plots."
Hutmacher is not convinced there would be a yield advantage or cost reduction everywhere. "However, we need to do many more commercial trials to really see what it will do in the fields. It has worked in Merced County. The question is where it work commercially elsewhere."
Hutmacher said growers have taken the lead in UNR in the West. "Growers have really been in the forefront on UNR push because they are looking to reduce costs. Basically the research community is trying to provide information to help them along."
One of the UNR pioneers have been Kelly and Dana Hair, who have successfully produced a half to a third of a bale increase using on 15-inch row cotton in Kings and Western Tulare County.
They are expanding with 5,000 acres of UNR in six to eight locations in the Imperial Valley where there was only 5,800 acres of cotton last season.
"It's the talk of the coffee shops around here," said Bob Bedwell, manager of the Planters Ginning Co. in Brawley, Calif., the only cotton gin left in the desert valley where in the 1970s more than 150,000 acres of cotton were grown.
Hutmacher said the Palla brothers in Kern County, Calif., are pleased with the results of their 450-acres of 10-inch cotton. They plan to increase their acreage to 800 this season.
Arizona's UNR acreage is expected to take a sharp drop this season because one of that state's biggest growers is switching from 2,500 acres of 10-inch UNR row to bedded 30-inch rows.
"My guess is that Arizona's UNR acreage will drop to 2,500 to 3,000 acres this year," according to Steve Husman, University of Arizona agricultural Extension agent for Pima and Pinal counties.
"However, I think there will be more growers trying UNR this season on small acreages and I think that is good," he added. That interest is being sparked by field trials from Husman and others from UA which show definite production cost savings.
Holds down cost For example, Husman's UNR trials in Pinal County last season showed only about a 40-pound yield increase in a side-by-side trial, but a $178 reduction in total costs. UNR dropped the break-even cost to 65 cents per pound vs. 79 cents for conventional 40-inch rows on the same farm.
In a trial at a Buckeye, Ariz., farm monitored by Patrick Clay, UA extension agent in Maricopa County, brush-harvested 30-inch cotton yielded 1,936 pounds of lint per acre vs. 1,718 pounds spindle picked and 1,816 pounds per acre from rows planted 10 inches apart.
Clay said the 10 and 30-inch rows matured at the same time with a turnout of 27 to 28 percent from the stripper harvested cotton and 29.5 from spindle picked cotton.
Micronaire was 3.7 from brush-harvested cotton, significantly less than the 4.4 for spindle picking.
However, cotton got too tall and there was a problem with barky bales, said Clay.
"Any advantage with UNR is negated by poor stand establishment," said Husman. "And, dry planting and irrigating up will not get it in Arizona."
"I think we can get more earliness with UNR and chop even more costs," said Husman.
"There is a definitely a trend toward higher yields and lower cost with UNR," he said. "However, UNR is not a low management system. Stand is critical from the beginning."