“Temperatures in April and May will be well above normal near the coast but a bit cooler than normal in the Valley and the desert. Expect widespread showers in mid- to late April, with scattered showers in early to mid-May.”
— Old Farmer's Almanac 2004 California Weather Forecast

A series of early spring Pacific storms has become the norm in recent years in California. They are welcome because they bring snow to the mountains which translates to water for farms and cities.

Waiting until February and March before farmers have an idea of how much irrigation water they may receive is a bit nerve wracking as farmers play the annual irrigation water allocation guessing game.

It is like contestants on the long-running game show “The Price is Right” who at show's end spin the giant wheel to see who gets a chance at the grand prize.

There is no 100 figure on the Price wheel, just like it is each year for California farmers. Very few California producers can expect to get 100 percent of their water “allocation” That used to be called water rights before the courts and radical environmentalists began taking water away from farmers for non-agricultural uses.

California is not awash in water supplies this season, however, there is more than normal for this time of year in most watersheds. Time is drawing near when farmers want the rain and snow to stop. However, the Old Farmer's Almanac is predicting weather not unlike it predicted last spring. For Corcoran, Calif., cotton farmer Matt Gilkey it was spring he would rather forget and certainly does not want to repeat.

“Last spring was the worst planting season I've seen in 20 years of farming,” said Gilkey.

Statistics confirm Gilkey's observation. Only 27 percent of spring planting weather was rated as ideal based on the University of California five-day heat unit model. Forty-percent of the spring planting weather was marginal.

There were a couple of brief windows of good planting conditions in late-March and early-April, but pretty poor heat units for germination and seedling growth much of the rest of the time up to late in the second week of May.

Gilkey and Riverdale, Calif., producer Jean Errotabere did not roll their first planters until late April and did not finish until May.

Errotabere of the family-operated Errotabere Ranches has gained a valley wide reputation as one of the best Pima producers in the San Joaquin.

Pima is a bit more cold hardy than Acalas, but Errotabere has learned you cannot get into a hurry with Pima or any cotton.

No spring gambling

“We have made mistakes in the past by planting by the calendar. We had such poor results, especially in 1995, we have never again gambled in the spring and planted under less than ideal conditions,” he said. Now Errotabere lives by the UC five-day heat forecast and soil temperatures at planting time.

“You can never make up for a weak stand,” said Errotabere. “I would much rather gamble on fall weather than on spring weather.”

The gamble paid off in 2003 with a very, nice warm fall making up a lot of lost ground for many producers.

Yields were off last year, but it could have been a lot worse without an open fall. Errotabere averaged 3.75 bales for his Pima and 3.6 for Acala. “Obviously with Pima prices like we are seeing for the 2003 crop, in hindsight I would have liked to plant a little more Pima. But, we were so doggone late last season we did not want to chance it.”

Prices remain relatively strong for Pima this season and Errotabere plans to plant his normal 2,000 acres of Pima and about 500 upland.

“We are fortunate to have some good Pima ground that gives us consistent Pima yields,” said Errotabere.

“We also are getting better varieties; better tools to grow it with and are learning more each year how to produce good Pima,” said Errotabere.

There is not much a farmer can do about the weather, but wait. However, the one insurance policy he can take out is seed treatment to ward off seedling diseases like threatened last year's crop and could make a repeat performance in 2004.

Diseases worsened

Bob Hutmacher, University of California Extension cotton specialist, says infections of Rhizoctonia, Pythium and Thielaviopsis can all be made worse by the low temperatures and soil moisture conditions that persisted across much of the valley last spring.

“We just had lousy conditions for cotton to grow,” he says. “We'd see peak daytime temperatures in the 50s and 60s, and then it would cool down to the mid-40s at night. And while it wasn't terribly wet, some areas did get rain showers. When growers are faced with a difficult year, combination seed treatments will help with seedling establishment.”

“It was an especially bad year for Thielaviopsis,” said Gilkey, who produces about 5,200 acres of Acala, upland and Pima cotton each season. “I learned long ago that you have to use a broad-spectrum fungicide if you expect to establish a healthy stand.”

“We do everything we can to keep diseases out of our cotton,” said Errotabere. “We use the best available fungicide package on our seed.”

Errotabere and Gilkey are among the California growers who protect their seed with the new California Premium Cotton Amendment System from Gustafson.

The California Premium Cotton Amendment System features Allegiance (metalaxyl) fungicide for protection against Pythium; Baytan fungicide against Thielaviopsis and Rhizoctonia; and Vitavax fungicide for additional Rhizoctonia protection as well as protection against seed borne diseases. It also includes Kodiak biological fungicide, which provides an extended window of protection against Rhizoctonia and Fusarium after traditional chemical seed amendments have been exhausted.

Seed treatment results

University of California cotton seed treatment trials conducted in 2001 by Hutmacher and UC Kern County cotton farm advisor Brian Marsh demonstrated just how much difference broad-spectrum disease protection can make in seedling emergence and survival. Of all the treatment combinations evaluated in trials in Kern and Fresno county sites, the highest seedling survival rates came from a combination of Baytan, Vitavax, Allegiance and Kodiak. That combination demonstrated an average 35 percent improved seedling emergence over the untreated check in Kern County and 14 percent improved seedling emergence versus the untreated check in Fresno County.

“No fungicide is going to provide relief from seedling diseases if the weather stays cold and wet for 6 or 8 weeks like we had in 1998,” Hutmacher says. “But trials conducted by the university and the chemical companies show that combination fungicide materials tend to be the best performing.”

“We've had good experience with the California Premium Cotton Amendment System on pretty much everything we've planted the last few years,” Errotabere concluded.

This seed treatment package comes from the delinters.

e-mail: hcline-primediabusiness.com