Only about 25 percent of California's 710,000-acre cotton crop was in the ground when the tax man came calling, and only about 50 percent of Arizona's 200,000 acres were in the ground by April 15.

Last year Western producers were basking in the wake of one of the best starts ever by the middle of April with virtually all the crop in the ground and up, in route to record yields in California and near record in Arizona.

Six weeks into the San Joaquin Valley cotton season this year and even longer than that for desert growers, University of California and University of Arizona extension cotton agents had high praise for growers' patience in a spring that produced at best only marginal planting conditions between a series of rainy cold fronts.

This season is being compared to 1998, the last truly poor planting season for Western cotton.

Warm soil temperatures and acceptable five-day heat-unit planting forecasts have been few and far between in 2003. When those windows did open, growers moved quickly and many of those fields look okay at this point. Other fields looked ripe for disease setbacks.

A little heat would make them look a lot better, but the forecast for the last 10 days of April did not look that promising.

Work crop right

While there are still many months until harvesttime for weather conditions to improve and push the crop along, most experts says growers will have to be on their toes to pull out good yields. Another record yield year like 2002 seems unlikely.

Conditions of SJV fields planted before April 15 was a mixed bag, according to University of California State Cotton Specialist Bob Hutmacher. Seedling disease may hurt some of these fields, but that will not show up for a few weeks.

Hutmacher has been preaching a flexibility doctrine to growers, strongly recommending that they respond to the season at hand rather than following a pattern each season. And, many have responded quickly this season looking at the calendar and weather forecasts.

“Some growers have gone to using in-furrow or at-planting fungicides. This has not been widespread in the past, but with a later planting start this year, higher seed costs, there is more interest in reducing risks of stand losses,” said Hutmacher.

Veteran Madera County Farm Advisor Ron Vargas points out that UC data has shown for every day planting is delayed after April 15, producers can expect a 1 to 1.5 percent yield loss per day.

“However, since that data was developed I think growers have been doing a better job of managing cotton and losses have not been as great with later plantings,” said Vargas.

Hutmacher agrees. “Most growers have experience with late April or first week of May plantings. Even full-season Acala and Pima varieties can be brought in on time with very good to excellent yield possibilities,” said Hutmacher.

Require attention

Hutmacher pointed out that later planted crops require more management attention to assure that fruiting and crop maturity are not delayed. SJV growers “know how to make those management changes,” he added.

“Growers will have to pay closer attention to irrigation, Pix and N management and perhaps early-season insects, especially if plantings get pushed into May,” according to Tulare County farm advisor Steve Wright.

Ideally, Fresno County growers want cotton fully planted by April 20, Easter Sunday this year, according to county farm advisor Dan Munk. However, growers were not spending time looking for Easter eggs this year, but hunting for even acceptable weather conditions to plant 90 percent of the county's crop. Only 10 percent of the county's crop was in the ground by the start of the third week in April.

Fresno County is the largest cotton-producing county in the San Joaquin Valley approximately 250,000 acres.

“Time is short,” admits Munk, “However, we must wait for soil temps to come up and this may take up to several days following the beginning of a warming trend.”

UC recommends soil temps of at least 58 degrees six to eight inches deep at 8 a.m. plus a five-day heat unit forecast of at least 11 to 15 units for marginal conditions and 16 to 20 for adequate planting conditions.

The five-day heat unit forecast on April 15 was two.

The five-day heat unit forecast beginning April 21 was only for 7 heat units.

Not panic time

“There is no reason to panic, just concern right now,” said Munk.

Kings County Cotton Farm Advisor Bruce Roberts said through April 19, only 5 percent of the days since the window of cotton planting opened March 10 had soil temperatures been above the 58-degree level.

Although about 40 percent of Kings County's crop was planted by Easter, Roberts was surprised it was not more with the lateness of the hour.

“I think growers have been correct to hold off. It is better to leave the seed in the bag than worry about it in the ground,” Roberts said.

There is a bright side to the wet, cool weather that has stymied cotton planting; irrigation water availability has improved greatly. Two big April storms dumped heavy snow in the mountains as well as rain in the valley and federal water contractors have upped the delivery to 75 percent of contracted water from 60 percent. That will not likely increase acreage, but it will lessen the concern for adequate irrigation water to produce the crop.

“This will take a little pressure off on the water side,” Roberts.

However, growers could pay a price for late rains and a mild winter in the form of heavy pest pressure.

Migration to cotton

Lygus pressure is often associated with late spring growth in the foothills and valley pastures. When spring grass and weed growth starts to dry out, lygus migrate to cotton. With the spring rains, the dieback will be later and that could produce heavy migration when cotton is most vulnerable.

This late start, said Roberts, will put a premium on pest management early and late for not only lygus, but silverleaf whitefly.

The lateness of the crop also will put a premium on preserving blooms moving into the heat of summer. “And, of course with a late crop you always want an open fall to bring in the crop,” he added.

The challenge will definitely be greater in 2003 than 2002.

Panic?

“Never,” said Earl Williams, president of California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations. “Cotton is still the only game in town.”

There's no panic in Arizona, either, but Steve Husman, UA ag agent for Pinal and Pima counties said April was “a bit challenging” in getting what he estimates is 50 percent of the projected 2003 crop in the ground and up.

The weather has been like a bungee jumper; highs in the 80s followed by cold fronts sending lows into the 40s. “Conditions have not been the best for stand establishment.

“I have not seen or heard of much in the way of soil borne diseases, but I suspect we will likely see some stands struggle. The jury is still out,” Husman said.

Ten days late

Maricopa County, Ariz., cotton is running about 10 days behind due to intermittent spring rains that delayed land preparation for growers, according to UA ag agent Pat Clay, who added a series of storms were passing through the state before and after Easter Sunday that could continue to hamper the start of the 2003 season.

The earliest planted cotton is in the Imperial Valley of California and Yuma County, Ariz.

Yuma Extension Agent Mohammed Zerkoune said about 90 percent of his county's 22,000 acres of cotton was planted by mid-April. Growers started planting in mid-February.

“Although the recent cool temperatures have a tendency to slow growth, I think the cotton is progressing well. I have not noticed any significant disease problem at this point,” he said.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com