The simplicity of ultra narrow row (UNR) cotton or corn is what attracts growers to it. There are fewer steps from planting to harvest, and that means lower costs per acre.

However, with fewer essentials, each step can take on much greater significance.

Getting a stand is unquestionably the most critical element in UNR, much more so than in conventional, row cotton. Gene and Kevin Palla of Palla Rosa Farming Co. in Southern Kern County, Calif., can attest to that.

They have enjoyed the fruits of good UNR cotton stands of 110,000 to 120,000 plants per acre for the past two seasons. This year it's a different story.

“It has been nerve wracking,” said Kevin of the 1,000 acres of UNR they are growing this season. Kevin is farm manager of the 5,000-acre Palla Rosa Farming Co. owned by his cousin Gene. Like all their San Joaquin Valley peers, they struggled getting a good stand of cotton early. With UNR that struggle is much more exasperating.

“It was 85 degrees on March 25, and we were planting. A week later it was 38 degrees, and I still had a down jacket on at noon,” said Kevin. It has been a struggle ever since.

Without a solid stand of plants, UNR is an uphill battle all year. This is Palla Rosa's third year of UNR cotton. However, the Pallas have grown UNR corn for eight years, pioneering 10-inch corn in the heavily dairy country in the Old River area of the county.

The frustration of watching the 2001 10-inch row cotton crop struggle against heavy weed pressure gave Kevin pause when asked the question of whether he would continue growing UNR cotton in an 85-cent cotton market vs. a 50-cent market like it is today.

“You can do so much more with cotton in beds — scratch it — keep it going and if you have to replant it, it does not cost you three-quarters of a bag of seed per acre to replant like it does with ultra narrow row,” said Kevin. “If you have to replant UNR, it takes away the cost-saving incentives to grow it.”

Gene smiles and listens to his frustrated younger cousin think out loud about the 85-cent vs. 50-cent question in the wake of their first tough year getting a UNR stand.

‘Won't go back’

Gene winks, shakes his head and says quietly “We won't go back” to bed cotton, even if lint prices double.

UNR has kept Palla Rosa in cotton because it represents a savings of $100 to $150 per acre over conventional cotton growing techniques.

It's foolish to plant a crop that will not make money and 38-inch cotton in this market is a money loser, Gene said. It's too costly to grow.

Palla Rosa Farming Co.'s primary role is to provide forage for three family dairies. Three-fourth of the farm's output is forage crops. The rest, including almonds and cotton, are cash crops. “At least we hope they are,” said Kevin.

Kevin and Gene are third generation Kern County farmers. Their grandfather Raffaelo immigrated to the southern valley in 1913 to farm.

Gene is an innovator, always working to improve his farming. It was his venture into growing corn in 10-inch rows that propelled him into UNR cotton.

Eight years ago the cousins began growing corn silage in very narrow rows, flat planted and watered up.

“We sat around the table in the office looking at ways to cut costs. We knew other people were growing ultra narrow row corn in other parts of the country, so we wanted to give it a try,” said Kevin.

The cost savings, Gene figured, would come primarily from reduced labor costs as a result of no cultivations and more efficient irrigation by flooding checks rather than rows and no pre-irrigation. UNR corn also shades the bare ground sooner and that means fewer weeds.

That first year 10-inch corn was a 40-acre experiment. Today it's 1,500 to 2,000 acres each year of Palla Rosa silage corn and even some grain corn.

“We bought a White 6824 center-till planter for the corn. It's used in the Midwest for 30-inch corn and no-till soybeans,” said Kevin. It's a 24-row unit that can plant 10-inch rows.”

It costs $45,000 and is towed by a wide-track Caterpillar Challenger 35 bought new. They have since added another White planter and another Challenger 35 with the move to UNR cotton. Together the two units plant 2,500 to 3,000 acres of crops each season.

“We use the wide-track Challenger because we do not want any ruts or wheel tracks in the field. We want a flat, smooth surface for irrigation efficiency and for ease of harvesting,” Kevin said.

Expenses dropped

Gene's estimate of cost savings was right on. “Our expenses went down an average of $100 per acre on corn and our yields remained the same,” said Kevin. The farm averages about 40-tons of silage per acre.

Gene never looked back and now most of the silage corn growers in the Old River area have followed Gene's lead.

With his corn culture a success, Kevin and Gene started looking at cotton in 10-inch rows three years ago. They grow about 1,000-acres of cotton each year as part of the farm's rotation with a farm average of 3.4 bales per acre. Their 38-inch wide spindle pickers needed to be replaced, and they felt like low cotton prices were demanding a change as well.

“We planted 10-inch cotton on the flat in a 40-acre field the first year with the White planter. We pre-irrigated…you don't want to irrigate up cotton. It's okay with corn, but not cotton,” said Kevin.

Gene said the initial varieties were all Roundup Ready “California uplands” varieties from Delta and Pine Land Co. and Sure Grow. There are serious nutsedge problems in the area and “it is absolutely imperative,” said Kevin, that there be a weed control strategy. In this case it was the herbicide. Otherwise it was a hoe bill of $40 to $60 per acre.

“That first field was a sea of white,” said Kevin. “We picked it with a spindle picker and ran over probably a bale. We picked two bales and Rooded another half bale.”

That was 1999.

Before last year's harvest, they bought a John Deere 7455 stripper harvester with a burr extractor. “Deere does not make a finger stripper — it only has a brush stripper. So we bought a Taylor finger stripper head. We like it because you can hydraulically regulate the speed of the head.”

However, these machines are not designed for three-bale cotton. “They are made for two-bale cotton, and you have to take it slow in the type of high yielding cotton we produce in the West,” said Kevin.

Turnout lower

The machines are about a third of the cost of spindle picker and require minimal maintenance compared spindle machines. However, Kevin said because of their low capacity, just as many strippers are needed to harvest as spindle pickers to pick.

As expected, turnout is lower with a stripper, 29 to 30 percent vs. 34 to 36 percent for Maxxa. However, 2000 grades for Gene were his best ever. He had 50 percent middling grades and no spindle twist. Before last year it seldom was above 10 percent. And there was no more dockage for grass or trash than with spindle-picked cotton. And no spindle twist, added Gene.

Kern Delta-Weedpatch Ginning ginned the cotton, and the only drawback was that the ginning had to be slowed slightly to accommodate a heavier trash flow.

“We have been using a diker on the edge of the borders to control the water, but it was hard to harvest so we decided to put in three-foot wide permanent borders and precision laser level the fields to control the water.”

Visitors during last year's harvest were amazed at how white the modules were, Kevin. “You could not tell the difference between them and picker cotton,” he said. “And, we still have some 38-inch cotton we plan to keep for comparison purposes.”

The reason for that is that there is “no budget” for defoliant or boll opener, said Kevin. It's defoliated until all the leaves are gone and as many bolls open as possible, Gene said. “The field has to be white to stripper harvest,” said Kevin.

The Pallas switched to Roundup Ready Riata last year. “It was the highest yielding cotton compared to anything on the farm — including California Uplands — and no dockage for lower quality fiber,” said Kevin.

They make two applications of Roundup for weed control and with the UNR shading, they believe they are getting better nightshade and nutsedge control than cultivation and herbicides on bedded cotton.

Some conventional cotton fields could only handle cotton for one season because of the weed pressure. With the control provided by UNR shading and herbicide, those same fields can tolerate two cotton seasons. Gene has always used a pre-plant herbicide in cotton.

Gene considers himself one of BASF's best customers for Pix. Rates for UNR are two to four times that of conventional cotton. The Pallas want the cotton 24 inches high and no more than 30 inches.

And, they want a columnar plant. That's one reason for 10-inch rows versus 15-inch rows, the closest spacing with most singulation seed planters available in California.

With the narrower spacing, there are few lateral branches on each plant, which typically hold two to five bolls.

The cotton must be harvested by the end of October in the Southern San Joaquin, according to Gene.

“We will probably reduce this year's irrigation by one from last season to finish earlier,” he said. It's all check irrigated with 100 foot borders. They have laser leveled the fields with a zero side fall and changed to a wider border.

“We have been using a diker on the edge of the borders to control the water, but it was hard to harvest so we decided to put in three-foot wide permanent borders and precision laser level the fields to control the water,” said Kevin.

It reduces their available ground by 3 percent, but they believe they'll pick up some yield increase from outside rows. The borders will remain in for alfalfa and forage crops. Unlike UNR silage corn, UNR cotton has given the Pallas a yield increase. On weak ground it was 30 percent. On stronger ground, 10 percent.

Worth the worry

Although there may be more work and worry with cotton than corn, particularly getting a stand, Gene estimates he is saving $100 to $150 per acre or gaining a half bale per acre more income. It's worth the worry.

Savings have come from less tillage and less labor. “We are using less labor on the farm with UNR corn and cotton. No one has lost their jobs because of our narrow-row cropping, but with people retiring and quitting, we have not had the need to replace them,” Kevin said.

Gene and Kevin are confident in their knowledge skill with UNR considering this is their seventh crop. The biggest obstacle right now is seedbed preparation for UNR cotton.

This season pointed out the need for a smoother, less cloddy seedbed.

“Gene has been on the Internet and has found a rolling harrow with ring rollers that may help us get a more uniform seedbed,” Kevin said. “That is what we need more than anything with UNR cotton.”

It is imperative to get a solid stand, Gene said, and it has little to do with yield. It has everything to do with weed control and controlling plant growth. Bare ground invites weeds in and allows plants to get too bushy for stripper harvesting.