About 1,000 acres of the California's version of ultra narrow-row cotton (UNR) are being grown this year by nine producers in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

This is cotton grown two rows atop a conventional 30-inch wide cotton bed harvested with a spindle picker. This differs from the more widely planted and touted UNR planted flat in rows more narrow than 30 inches (usually seven to 12 inches) and stripper harvested.

California UNR was tried first in 1998 on 15 acres.

Most of this year's acreage in the northern San Joaquin Valley was planted with a precision vacuum planter built in Kansas and widely used to seed peanuts and soybeans. It is the biggest reason for the sharp acreage increase.

California producers and University of California Merced County Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor Bill Weir hope it will break the revolutionary cotton production system out of a 7 to 8 percent yield increase range experienced over the past three seasons.

While growers have realized yield increases of 130 to 175 pounds more lint per acre with production costs savings of $40 to $50 per acre using California UNR vs. single rows per bed, they want more yield. And, that is certainly understandable in today's cotton market.

Daniel Burns, manager of San Juan Ranch in Dos Palos, Calif., is pleased with the performance of the new Monosem NG Plus precision vacuum planter.

He used it to seed 500 acres of two rows per bed spaced 7.5 inches apart. It was also used to plant another 400 acres for seven other producers. Weir said a ninth grower planted double-row 30-inch cotton using old John Deere 71 offset planters like the ones Burns and at least one other producer have been using for the past two seasons.

The speed is faster and singulation of the new planter is much better than the old plate planter, said Burns.

“We planted at four to four and a half miles per hour and it never missed a beat. This is compared to two and a half miles per hour with the old planter,” Burns said. “The seed is spaced three and a half inches in the seed row, and we were able to plant into moisture without a problem.”

The older plate planter would often plant two seeds in one location, creating competition between the two and reduced yield potential for both.

Monosem's twin-row planters have been used for many years in the Southeast, primarily to plant peanuts where growers can get a 500- to-800 pound increase over single rows. Growers have also used them to plant twin rows of corn, soybeans and milo.

This is the first year Monosem twin-row planters have been used in cotton. However, Monosem single-row units are used to plant a wide variety of other crops in California.

“We think with the much better precision of the Monosem planter, each plant will carry a better fruit load and therefore better production,” said Burns.

The San Juan Ranch manager also said the greater planter precision allowed him to reduce his plant population to 90,000 or 95,000 from the 100,000 or more he has had for in the past two seasons.

“The double row 30 cotton came up quicker and really outgrew the single row cotton for the first couple of weeks,” he said. “Now that we have irrigated it all, the single row has caught up with the double row.

“I have no idea why it started quicker, but it was sure noticeable. We had people driving by our fields and commenting about how good the double-row 30 looked,” said Burns.

Heretofore, the California UNR rows on beds were planted seven inches apart, but the Monosem planter would only narrow to 7.5 inches. “I found out later that there were spacers in the wheels that could be taken out to make it seven inches, but I don't think that would make any difference from what we experienced this year,” said Burns. However, he does not expect the added half inch to make any difference squeezing the two rows into a single spindle picker head.

All of San Juan's double row 30 this year is Riata Roundup Ready. “I wanted to plant some non-Roundup Ready to see how it would do, but we were so far behind getting everything in, we did not have time to wait for the Monosem planter to get to every field. We only had a two-week window to get our cotton in.” he said.

Burns had hoped to plant 900 acres of the double row 30 cotton, but the planting window closed before he could do it.

Burns rented the Monosem planter and may purchase it at the end of the year. “It all depends on final yields,” said Burns.

Burns uses herbicide-resistant cotton on fields where he has had processing tomatoes to control nightshade and other nettlesome weeds that follow tomatoes.

While much of the research and production has been with herbicide-resistant varieties, Weir said the system is not limited to transgenic cottons.

Figures from $42.50

“If your hoe bill is more than $42.50 per acre, which is the combined cost of the tech fee and the Roundup, then a herbicide resistant cotton makes sense,” he said.

“If your hoe bill is less than that, then a conventional cotton variety might make economic sense,” said Weir, who added that the double row, 30-inch cotton is only cultivated once since the cotton shades the furrows quicker. That also reduces weed control costs.

The California version of UNR got its start four seasons back when Weir planted a small plot on San Juan with the goal of stripper harvester gathering it. The stripper never arrived, and the cotton was spindle picked, logging an almost 9 percent yield increase and a $50 per acre savings. Weir and Burns never called for the finger stripper again.

In most cases and certainly in Merced County at the far north end of the San Joaquin Valley, growers prefer spindle picking because of the threat of inclement weather. Rain or fog can shut down a finger stripper harvest for a long time.

And there is always the underlying issue of excessive trash and added ginning cost with a stripper harvester. However, those fears have been allayed with the newer finger strippers equipped with cleaners.

In 1999 Weir logged an 8.4 percent increase and last year it was 7.3 percent in a very good yielding year.

“The hangup from the very beginning was the planter, and I have to give credit to Daniel Burns for looking for and finding a planter that would work,” said Weir.

Weir agrees with Burns that planting into moisture is critical, “especially if you plant on the edge of the bed as we are with this system.

“I also noticed that if the planter got too close to the edge of the bed, the cotton came up off the bed a little. However, I do not think that is a big issue.”

Most of the savings Weir calculated involved not pulling as many irrigation ditches and cultivating only once with no hand hoeing. However, there were added cost, primarily higher rates of Pix. “My highest yields have come at the two pint Pix rate,” said Weir.

“The only disappointment this year was that we did not get it on more acreage south of Merced and Madera counties,” said Weir.

e-mail: harry_cline@intertec.com