There are axioms in any business and a big one in farming is it is not a good idea to introduce something new in a bad farming year.

More than one new, truly promising cotton variety has been shot dead by growers at the starting gate just because it was introduced during a poor production year, regardless of the fact it may be the weather or insects that caused it to be a less than ideal season. Ditto for new production techniques or new chemistry.

Ultra narrow-row (UNR) cotton is not a new idea. It has been floundering around California and Arizona for at least three decades, stymied by the lack of an efficient harvesting system.

However, there has been a breakthrough in harvesting UNR. Its first public, commercial demonstration, though, left a lot to be desired for the innovative Northern San Joaquin Valley producer who agreed to try a large scale trial of UNR for demonstrating the unique Deere UNR picker mechanism.

It may have been a fitting end to an already challenged growing season.

The only version of narrow-row cotton in the West that has really caught on is 30-inch cotton. It has replaced considerable, traditional 38- and 40-inch cotton, especially in California and somewhat in Arizona, because it allowed growers to put about 25 percent more plants in the field and more plants usually means more yield.

Key to evolution

The key to this evolution was a pair of farmer-modified two-row, straddle-row pickers in the mid-1970s that opened the door to narrow-row cotton. At least one company later developed commercial kits to modify two-row pickers to pick narrow-cotton. Straddling one row while picking two was not very efficient, but it was good enough to win converts to 30-inch cotton and encouraged two major commercial picker manufacturers, Case IH and John Deere, to develop larger four and six-row factory 30-inch pickers. These machines propelled narrow-row to widespread acceptability.

However, any row-spacing less than 30 inches wide still had to be gathered with either a brush harvester or a finger stripper. Those things gather probably twice as much trash from tall, high yielding Western cotton as they do cotton bolls. Brush harvesters and stripper are about as welcome at a cotton gin as a colony of red imported fire ants at a nudist summer camp.

Also, any moisture from rain or heavy fog shuts down the harvester instantly. Growers who have had success with stripper or brush harvesting have had to terminate the crop very early to make sure they dodge rain or fog and that reduces yield potential. Others who have tried to cheat the rain and fog have experienced disasters.

The UNR breakthrough has been promised in the West with Deere’s unique 12-row picker that gathers cotton in rows spaced 15 inches apart by slicing off plants in one row and feeding them into an adjacent machine row where they are wrapped around other plants from an adjacent 15-inch row. Twisting together plants are then fed through a spindle picking mechanism.

First West showing

It has received a lot of press and rave review in other areas of the Cotton Belt where yields increases of 100 pounds per acre have reported. Deere ran it for the first time publicly in the West this year in 15-inch cotton at San Juan Ranch near Dos Palos, Calif. where ranch manager Daniel Burns planted about 180 acres of no-till cotton, herbicide-resistant cotton in 15-inch rows in one of the worst planting seasons in recent memory.

It was so late he left one field for dead — too late to replant. However, to Burns' surprise it came up.

Overall, Burns was not totally displeased with the stands in the three fields.

The 15-inch cotton trial at San Juan Ranch was part of a large scale, University of California trail comparing single row 30-inch cotton, double rows planted 7.5 inches apart on 30-inches beds and the 15-inch UNR.

Burns has been pioneer in the double row 30-inch cotton, which has out-yielded single row 30 consistently since he started growing it in 1998. It really outperforms conventional single-row-to-a-bed cotton in a poor year like 2005. During the seven years he has grown double-row 30-inch cotton, he has averaged a quarter-bale more cotton per acre than convention, single row 30-inch cotton. However in a year like ’05 Burns expects to yield a half bale more per acre with twin-row 30 than single row 30.

“Twin-row really shines in a poor planting season year like this year,” he said.

600 acres

Burns grew about 600 acres of twin-row this season, 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

This season was one of those lousy years. It started late with cold wet weather delaying planting. The crop hit an blistering July hot spell with daytime highs above 105 almost all month long and then when the weather cooled and the crop began to set cotton in August and September, fall arrived early, precluding that late summer/early fall boll set from maturing into harvestable bolls.

Untimely rain is particularly onerous in UNR because San Juan’s 15-inch cotton was planted flat and water stood in the field. The rain was not good for the other cotton on 30-inch cotton, but it was on beds and the water shed off the plant rows into the furrows.

Early in the spring Burns ran an all-in-one Eliminator cultivation implement once and pulled borders to pre-irrigate. He 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. Burns ran a rotary hoe over it, and it started to come up when another 1.5 inches of rain fell on it.

By then he needed to replant, but Deere had already trucked the planter to another state. So, he just decided to take what he had, assuming it would emerge.

May 8 stand

“It was planted April 27 and we did not get a stand until May 8th,” he said. However, it developed into 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.

University of California Extension Cotton Specialist Bob Hutmacher, who is doing research comparing the three narrow-row production systems along with Madera/Merced counties farm advisor Ron Vargas said, “it’s amazing Daniel got a stand considering the nasty conditions he encountered.”

After the cotton emerged, it never saw iron again until it was picked. His management, other than insects, was to water-run UN 32; about 125 units.

”It did not look too bad considering what we went through just to get a stand.” The established plants filled in skips well.

When it came time to pick, the 12-row Deere behemoth began rolling through the three fields.

“The picker had a row guidance system, but it was not equipped with GPS and it was a bear to pick the cotton. I had my best driver on it and he had a heckuva time finding the rows. And he could not drive after dark because he could not see the rows. The picker was the biggest downfall of the whole thing,” he said. There also were problems with weeds plugging the 12-heads.

The picker has operated in the South and Southeast, recording significant yield increases in 15-inch cotton. “I think the difference in the West is that we have bigger plants and that made it more difficult for the picker to operate,” he said. Burns surmised that UNR cotton in the South reaches only about two feet in height while Western UNR could be twice that tall.

Lacked compatibility

He tried to mount the AutoFarm GPS guidance system he uses on tractors on the Deere picker, but it was not compatible with the harvester.

Burns said it was not a good growing season to evaluate the narrow-row cotton, but he still believes the potential is there. “We have not ginned all the modules, but it looks like one field of 15-inch cotton went one bale; another a bale and a half and another probably two and a half bales, which is not bad considering what we went through just to get a stand,” he said.

“There is no question the potential is there for 15-inch cotton if it can be picked with GPS,” he said. “There was a yield monitor on the picker and it went through some four-bale cotton, proving that ultra narrow row cotton can yield.”

Getting a yield increase is still critical to adapting new production techniques, but parallel to that is the need to reduce costs.

”I have done some preliminary calculations and it looks like UNR was about $80 per acre cheaper to grow than conventional cotton. Twin-row 30 cotton is about $50 cheaper to grow than conventional single row cotton.”

Tempered enthusiasm

Problems with the picker have tempered Burn’s enthusiasm a bit on the 15-inch system. “I don’t think Deere is going to come back again to our farm with the system. You need a perfect season to make this work, and this was not the perfect season.”

However, the disappointing ’05 experiment has not lessened his drive to cut costs to stay in the cotton business.

“We do not know what is going to happen with the new farm bill, but it seems certain support will be reduced. For us to stay in the cotton business, we have got to cut costs,” he said.

The Deere 15-inch system is expensive. The planter costs $50,000 and the 12-row picker is well into six figures.

There may not be a Western market for hardware that expensive.

The picker has been tested at J.G. Boswell on Pima cotton. However, most Pima is second picked and the cut-and-twist harvesting system will not second pick, thereby excluding the Deere system from more than half the cotton acreage in the valley. Of an estimated 600,000 acres of cotton expected to be planted in the valley in ’06, at least half will be Pima.

That means there will be only about 250,000 acres of Acala/upland cotton in the valley next season and there are few growers who could afford to buy the planter and 12-row picker to gather 15-inch cotton. However, Deere said the picker mechanisms for the new harvesting system can be retrofitted to existing late model picker and that may be incentive enough to buy or lease the planter and give 15-inch cotton a try by replacing heads of older machines with the UNR picking mechanism.

“I think 10 years ago something like this Deere UNR spindle picking system would have created a lot more interest in 15-inch cotton in California,” said Burns. There were more than 1.5 million acres of Acala/upland cottons then.

“Unfortunately, I think this UNR picker system is about 10 years too late for the valley,” he added. “It could have saved a lot of acres that are now gone” due to increasing production costs. Burns believes growers would have been willing to try the 15-inch system to stay in the cotton business a decade ago before acreage started falling.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com