A new chapter is being written in the California and Arizona narrow row cotton saga and it may be the defining final chapter in a chronicle that has taken three decades so far to compile.

Cotton has been planted in every conceivable row spacing from broadcast seeding with a grain planter to the historical 40 inches or even wider.

Since the mid-1970, the thrust of researchers and innovative growers has been to narrow rows from the traditional 38-40 inches to gain more yield and reduce costs.

It has been successfully narrowed to 30-inches because that is just about as narrow as you can squeeze rows together and still gather it with a spindle cotton picker.

California and Arizona cotton has been produced in rows narrower than 30-inches and harvested with brush or finger harvesters. These harvesters do not work well in the West where cotton is much more lush and therefore produces much more trash. Ginners do not like that. Also, any moisture from rain or heavy fog shuts down harvesters instantly.

John Deere may have successfully broken through the 30-inch barrier in the West with its new “12-row” spindle harvester that gathers two rows of cotton at once and puts them through one spindle picking mechanism.

That has encouraged at least two San Joaquin Valley cotton producers to plant cotton in 15-inch rows. One is J.G. Boswell Co. in Corcoran, Calif., and the other is Daniel Burns, manager of San Juan Ranching Co., Dos Palos, Calif.

Burns, a pioneer in maximizing narrow-row cotton potential under SJV conditions, can hardly contain his enthusiasm for 15-inch Riata RR cotton, even though he has a less than ideal stands this season in the three fields of ultra narrow row (UNR) cotton.

SJV growers will get a chance to see Burns' 150 acres of no-till UNR near maturity on Sept. 28 when Deere and Ron Vargas, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor host a field day at San Juan to look at UNR compared to twin-row cotton and single row cotton, both on 30-inch beds.

The new Deere picker with the 15-inch picking mechanism will be there as well. Burns said, however, the late-planted cotton likely will not be ready to harvest then.

Second season

This is the second year 15-inch row cotton has been grown and picked with the Deere picker. Last season Boswell had a small acreage of UNR Pima cotton picked by a prototype Deere 12-row. Boswell ranch manager Michael Mullion said it out yielded single row 30-inch cotton, but “not by much.”

Mullion has another 100 acres of UNR Pima this season. He did a boll count on it about Aug. 1 and said “it looks phenomenal.” Planting started April 5. “It took us five days to plant the 100 acres. We had a pretty skinning planting window. It crusted, and we had to use a rotary hoe on it.” Nevertheless, it looks good, he added.

Mullion said the verdict is still out whether the UNR will benefit Pima production. He believes it has more potential in upland.

Burns agrees. “I think we can make 15-inch cotton work,” said Burns, even with an admittedly thin stand this season that has not even been defoliated.

“We have got to change the way we have been doing things if we are to continue to grow cotton in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Burns.

Changing fast

Those changes are coming fast and furious. “If people would have asked me 10 years ago about growing no-till cotton in the San Joaquin Valley, I would thought they were crazy,” said Burns, who is doing just that with the 15-inch cotton planted flat and irrigated with borders like alfalfa.

Although, no-till cotton is really not that much of a stretch for Burns. For the past 7 years Burns has been growing cotton two rows per bed in 30-inch rows and picking it with a conventional picker, gathering both rows spaced about 6-inches apart down the row. It's all herbicide resistant cotton. It is cultivated only once.

During the seven years, he has averaged a quarter-bale more cotton per acre than convention single row 30-inch cotton and “in a year like this one where we had lousy planting weather and a cool spring we will get a half bale more per acre with twin-row 30 than single row 30. Twin-row really does well in a poor planting season year like this year,” he said. He has about 600 acres of twin-row, which is the maximum he can efficiently plant with his Monosem stagger planting unit planter. The rest of San Juan's 2,300 acres of cotton is single row 30s.

He is getting yield increases with twin-row 30 while saving from $40 to $60 per acre with reduced in-season tillage and by not pulling and knock down irrigation ditches between cultivations in a conventional system.

The flat-planted no-till cotton is only part of the rapidly changing farming picture in the valley. Farmers like Burns are reducing land preparation tillage as well for not just cotton, but tomatoes and other crops as well.

Conservation ideas

“When I came to the ranch we had probably 30 tractors. Today I think we have 12,” he said. They are higher horsepower to pull the multiple tax single pass tillage tools, but overall labor and fuel costs are going down with fewer passes across fields.

“This conservation tillage a lot of people are trying, including us, is a step in the right direction. There were a lot of good ideas on the recent Conservation Tillage (CT) field days that I would like to run with,” he said. “When you hear other farmers talking about reducing fuel bills by $50,000 a year, you pay attention.”

San Juan was part of CT tour because of the 15-inch no-till cotton as well as his on-going efforts to reduce tillage. He has bought a Wilcox one-pass Eliminator and is looking to purchase another. He is considering purchasing a Wilcox “Performer” that is designed to prepare processing tomato beds in one pass. “You can use it make 60-inch tomato beds or use it to split a pair of 30-inch cotton beds.” This implement is part of the growing trend toward maintaining permanent beds rather than knocking down and rebuilding them each winter and fall.

“A lot of my neighbors are going to permanent beds,” said Burns. He is doing the same thing on some of his tomatoes now under new drip irrigation systems.

Burns believes the only area where conventional tillage will always be necessary is land preparation after alfalfa.

“When you run harrow beds, tractors, bailers and swather over a field as many times as we do for alfalfa, there will be compaction and you have to take care of that before planting a crop after alfalfa,” he said.

Otherwise, the land preparation routine he did for the 15-inch no-till cotton likely will become the norm.

“All we did last winter was run the Eliminator once and chiseled it once and left it alone.”

This spring he ran the Eliminator once and pulled borders to pre-irrigate. “The Eliminator makes the ground look it has been land planed.”

Burns sprayed emerged weeds with Roundup just ahead of planting with a new Deere offset planter designed to plant 16 15-inch rows.

A week after he planted, it rained about 2 inches and the field crusted over.

Took rotary hoe

“The double-row 30 cotton and single row 30 are on beds and it shed the water pretty good and came up. The 15-inch just sat there. We ran a rotary hoe and it started to come up and another inch and a half of rain fell on it,” he said.

He would have like to have replanted, but Deere had already trucked off the planter. San Juan's Monosem planter used to plant the double row 30-inch cotton can be modified for UNR planting, but “we were so busy we did not have time to do it so we just waited for the 15 inch to come up and live with what we got.

“It was planted April 27 and we did not get a stand until May 8th,” he said. It is a “pretty decent” stand, he admitted.

After the stand was established, it was treated for weeds twice with Roundup on May 10 and May 25. Burns believes the stand is good enough to gain a comparison with the double row 30-inch cotton and the single row 30 at San Juan in Merced County.

“Regardless of what happens this year, we are going to grow 15-inch again next season. It will take a half bale more cotton to make it work for us, but I think we can do it,” he said. “The bottom line on whether this works or not will be yield.”

Burns' enthusiasm for the UNR spindle-picked cotton began last January when he was among about 200 growers who attended a John Deere presentation of its new UNR picker the Beltwide Cotton Conference in New Orleans. The unique picking mechanism slices off a row of cotton and feeds it into a standard row spindle head in an adjacent row, putting two plants through one head. Deere calls it a Pro-12 VRS Picking Unit. It can be ordered on new Deere pickers or retrofitted to 1997 and newer John Deere pickers.

“There were farmers there who said they went from one and three quarters to two bales to two and a half to 3 bales with spindle picked 15-inch cotton. If the system works for California, we should get four to four and a half bales with it,” said Burns.

The spindle picker is the key for Burns and other Western producers who want to grow UNR in the West.

The 15-inch Deere spindle picker mechanism represents the biggest breakthrough in harvesting high yielding, high quality Western cotton since the first 30-inch spindle pickers were introduced to the market in the early 1980s. The first narrow-row spindle pickers were farm-engineered two-row units developed in the mid-1970s. Later the major picker manufacturers offered multiple-row 30-inch spindle factory machines and that spawned a big increase in narrow-row cotton.

Mullion is not as optimistic as Burns about growing Pima in the new 15-inch system for one reason; it is not conducive to second picking. As much as 25 percent of a Pima yield can come from second picking, and the Deere system with one stalk cut and intertwined with another standing stalk could be difficult to second pick if there was a lot of Pima left after first picking.

However, Mullion realized there could be a second pick problem with the unique Deere system and he compensated last season with extra Prep and Cotton Quik and waited a “little longer” for defoliants and boll openers to work. He was successful and expects to repeat the same regime this season.

“We did second pick last season. We weighed it, and it was really not worth second picking,” he said. He believes the added defoliation effort allowed the harvester to gather the majority of the cotton on the first pass.

He selected Phytogen 800 as the Pima variety for the UNR system. “It is a moderately determinant variety that with proper irrigation manage minimizes the need for second picking,” he said.

“The yield difference between 800 and 810R outweighed the advantage of the Roundup resistance technology in 810 R,” said Mullion said.

The 810R variety is the only Roundup Ready Pima. There are many more herbicide-tolerant uplands available to SJV producers and this is why Mullion also believes 15-inch cotton may be better suited for upland.

Burns agrees. “Without the Roundup Ready technology we could not do what we have done with twin-row 30, especially rotating cotton after tomatoes and the nightshade problem that represents.”

Technology or not, it is yield that Burns and Boswell are searching for with UNR spindle picked cotton.

“It is the amount of cotton that goes into the module that determines how much money you return in any production system.”

Marginal situations

Mullion believes the UNR spindle picked system will work best in marginal situations where soil conditions limit production in conventional 30-inch rows. Mullion believes it will require a plant population of 100,000 to 120,000 plants per acre in those marginal soils to get the yield to make 15-inch worthwhile.

He was more aggressive with irrigation on the 15-inch cotton than on the 30-inch to gain the yield. “There was really no water savings,” he said.

He used preplant Prowl and rotary hoed the UNR at pinhead square.

“Right now I view 15-inch as still a trial in our situation, our soil types and the second picking issue,” said Mullion.

However, he says no-till or minimum-till 15-inch will grow in acceptance, especially in upland cotton, because growers must cut cost and reduce dust in an ever more regulated air quality environment

“What makes this alternative come alive in the West is the picker. There was absolutely no difference in Pima lint quality with the UNR picker and conventionally picked cotton,” he added.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com