Cooperative Extension agents Steve Husman in Arizona and Bill Weir in California hardly look like circuit riding preachers, but the two cotton researchers will be roaming their Far West cotton growing states this season preaching a gospel of money-making and money-saving double-row cotton.
They are expecting plenty of converts in their respective states. And, their message is being heeded elsewhere in the U.S. Cotton Belt where producers have heard about what has been called the “California version of ultra narrow row, Double-Row 30 cotton” or “Double Seed Line Cotton.”
Regardless of what it's called, Weir and Husman have proven the system offers significant income improvements or cost savings for producers. Already Husman has had calls from 15 Arizona producers from the Colorado River in western Arizona and eastern California to eastern Arizona who want Husman to bring his traveling precision planter to their farm for at least a test plot of two plant rows per bed of cotton. Several want to use the planter for a day of planting commercial fields of double-line cotton.
Weir said the Monoseem precision planter he and grower cooperator Daniel Burns at San Juan Ranches at Dos Palos used last season is already book to plant 1,100 acres in the Northern areas of the San Joaquin Valley.
Weir said another grower in his county built an offset sled planter last season and planted double row cotton for himself and at least one another grower. It also will be available this year.
Three precision planters from Great Plains Mfg., Salina, Kansas, will be available in the central and southern parts of the valley, according to University of California Extension Cotton Specialist Bob Hutmacher.
“Great Plains has had a lot of experience with its planters in double row 30-inch corn, and they want growers to try them in California this year on corn and cotton in California,” he said.
Two will be at equipment dealerships in Kern and Tulare counties, and Hutmacher said one is scheduled to be positioned at the West Side Research and Extension Center at Five Points, Calif., for growers to use.
It's conceivable that double row cotton on 30-, 32-, 38- or 40-inch bed cotton could total 5,000 acres in California and Arizona this season.
The idea began in 1998 when Weir planted a two-rows-per-bed, seven to 10 inches apart test plot at San Juan Ranches. He was borrowing on the growing interest of Ultra Narrow Row cotton planted like grain elsewhere in the Cotton Belt and adapting it to high-yielding, bed-planted, irrigated California cotton.
Like UNR elsewhere, Weir wanted to harvest that first year's plot with a stripper or brush harvester. The stripper never arrived, and Burns harvested the trial with a spindle picker.
Weir and Burns never looked at the stripper again. Yields were increased an average of more than 8 percent and costs were reduced $50 per acre compared to conventional single row 30-inch cotton without the stigma and trash of stripper harvesting.
Since then, Weir has recorded yield increases of no less than 7.3 percent on his research trials at San Juan with an average cost savings of about $50 per acre.
There were approximately 14 northern San Joaquin Valley producers who last year tried double line cotton rows on 30-inch beds planted seven inches apart. Weir said the yield increase averaged 10 percent with cost reductions of $25 to $70 per acres. “That average included some producers who recorded only a 1 percent yield increase. Others obviously did better than 10 percent,” said Weir.
One of those locations was on Burns' San Juan Ranches where the double row outyielded single row 30 by almost 16 percent, almost double what had been recorded the previous three years on the same ranch.
What was the reason for the big jump?
One was the planter used at San Juan and by the other 14 growers. It was a precision Monoseem planter that singulates seed placement much better than the old sled planter with offset plant planters used previously. Precision planting reduced plant crowding and enhanced yield potential.
The reason for the yield increase is double seed line cotton is obvious: more plants per acre. The highest yields in Weir's trials were from fields in the 60,000 to 80,000 plants per acre range.
Fewer field trips
The cost savings came from reduced field operations because rows close over quicker and fewer opening and closing of irrigation ditches. Basically, Burns cultivated the herbicide-resistant cotton once and only then to facilitate furrow irrigation.
Weir found no significant differences in fiber quality, but Husman has and that is the incentive spurring him on for a second year of double line cotton.
Last year was Husman's first year to try the double line seed rows planted seven inches apart and harvested with a spindle picker after two years of working with the more traditional stripper harvested UNR in Arizona.
The area University of Arizona Extension agent for field crops in Pima and Pinal counties in Central Arizona did not record a yield increase or a cost reduction in 2001 like Weir consistently has. However, he discovered last season that two rows per bed could make a difference in producer income by lowering micronaire.
Is that enough to incite interest among Arizona producers?
“Let me put it this way. I had one 300-acre cotton producer who lost $50,000 last season because of high micronaire discounts. If reducing micronaire can make that much difference with a smaller grower, imagine what it could do for larger producers,” said Husman.
The lowered micronaire, Husman surmises, is coming as a result of “decreasing photosynthate production and carbohydrate allocation on a per plant or per unit area basis.
“It has been documented in research literature that high plant population and shading reduce micronaire,” reports Husman.
Plant population increases in single row cotton has proven to reduce micronaire. Unfortunately, it also reduces yield, noted Husman.
By spreading out the high population using double seed line and closing the seed line rapidly, “it appears the micronaire may be consistently reduced” without reducing yield.
Husman got the same reduced micronaire readings in all three trials last season in Maricopa in the central part of the state; Marana in southern Arizona and Glendale, Ariz., near Phoenix. The varieties tested were noted for their high micronaire tendencies. At Maricopa the micronaire was reduced from 5.0 and above to 4.9 and below. At Glendale it went from an average of 5.1 for single row cotton to 4.6 to double row. In cooler Marana, it went from 4.7 to 4.5.
Like Weir's first three years, Husman last year planted his trials with offset plate planters on a double tool bar. He has since bought a Monoseem planter like the one Burns purchased.
And, Husman will trailer it around Arizona this year planting test plots and commercial fields.
“We have had calls from 15 growers who want us to plant test plots. Some also want to use the planter to seed plant commercial fields while I am there. We expect to have 15 to 20 locations throughout the state and all the interest is coming from growers calling me or other Extension agents who are working with me on the project,” said Husman. “We have not called anyone, which was what we want. We want producers to try this system using their regulation production practices. We will not baby these plots or fields. By the end of the year, we should have some good information on commercial production of twin-seed line cotton.
“It is no secret that some of the Stoneville varieties we grow in Arizona tend to be high micronaire, yet they are yielding animals…they are consistent high yielders. Growers want to cooperate with us using some of those varieties to see if they can get micronaire below the discount level,” said Husman.
Husman was not disappointed that he did not record increased yields or reduce costs last season. However, that might change this season with the precision plant that will seed with more uniform spacing.
Well worth effort
“I am cautiously hopeful we can get the yield increases they've seen in California, but even if we don't, the potential for reduced micronaire is well worth the effort,” said Husman.
To date most of the work Weir and Husman have done has been with transgenic cottons, Roundup Ready in California and stacked gene (Bt and Roundup resistant) cotton in Arizona.
“The varieties we used last were DP451BR and DP458BR, but it was not necessarily because they were Roundup Ready. It was because they are historically high micronaire cottons,” he said.
Most of Weir's work has been with Riata RR, California's herbicide-resistant Acala.
One of the drawbacks with earlier attempts in California to grow two rows per bed was with weed control. The Roundup Ready technology clears that hurdle.
However, Weir has seen conventional non-transgenic varieties grown two rows per bed and more traditional weed management programs. “These varieties have shown similar potential for favorable yield responses and some cost savings. A herbicide-resistant cotton may be a good choice, but does not appear to be a requirement for this system,” said Weir.
Stripper gone again?
Does the success with the Western, spindle-picked UNR cotton mean the stripper harvesting system is dead — once again — in California and Arizona. It was touted as the future of cotton in the last 70s and early 80s, but trashy cotton killed it then.
Husman thinks high population, grain-like seeding of cotton harvested with a stripper is dead in Arizona. Weir is not so adamant.
For two years Husman researched the system and several Arizona producers tried it, some on large scales. Yields increased significantly and, costs were reduced just as significantly. And, micronaire was consistently lower than single-row, spindle-picked cotton. However, several “management realities have discouraged significant, commercial adoption, including stand establishment, weed control, desiccation and stripper harvest.
“I still think there is potential for UNR but to be honest, the learning curve in the management of it is too steep to climb,” said Husman.
“There is a strong stigma against stripper-harvested cotton, but you can still grow cotton cheap and some growers still want to try it,” said Weir.
California and Arizona have taken the lead in this double row cotton, but Weir and Husman said they encountered widespread interest at the Beltwide Cotton Conference this year.
“There was a tremendous response,” said Weir, who chaired a working group on the subject.
“I had a lot of interest from people, especially from the Southeast,” said Husman.
“We had hoped to get another Monoseem planter to use in California, but Monoseem said they were so busy with orders from other parts of the country for these double row cotton planters they could not build another one for us,” said Weir.
Both Weir and Husman say the interest in what they are doing is due to the fact that going from a single row to a 30-, 32-, 38- or 40-inch bed doesn't require much change in a farmer's operation. Stripper harvested UNR demands dramatic changes.
“The transition can be relatively simple. So far, the biggest hurdle seems to be the planter — it is expensive,” said Weir. “However, it is a hurdle that is easily cleared with money.”
However, a potential yield increase of 10 percent; reduced costs of $50 per acre and eliminating micronaire discounts may be enough incentive to buy that planter.