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Recent decline, yet California pima cotton moves forward

Tom Kerby laments the sharp decline of San Joaquin Valley cotton acreage maybe a little more than most.

Kerby spent a decade as the University of California Extension cotton specialist and left a lasting legacy of research work. However, that is really not the main reason he bemoans the decline in acreage. SJV is a truly unique cotton growing environment where yields and quality are unprecedented and as a plant physiologist it is disheartening to see acreage decline in what he calls the “most unique area to grow cotton in the U.S.”

Kerby well understood that when he was in California. However, since he left to join Delta and Pine Land Co. in the early 1990s, traveling the world he truly marvels at that uniqueness.

He has repeatedly confirmed that with the data he has collected from years of Deltapine variety trials from across the Cotton Belt. Deltapine cottons not only yield more in the San Joaquin Valley compared to other cotton in field trials, quality is superior in a variety grown in California versus the same variety elsewhere.

Kerby told growers and others at a Deltapine field day at Pucheu Brothers Ranch, Tranquillity, Calif., that in 70 trials across the United States, Deltapine’s 110RF averaged 36.4 staple, good for an upland. In California trials it was more than a point higher, 37.6, near-Acala standards.

Unfortunately, cotton is being pushed off the land in California largely by higher value crops and feed and forage crops for the growing dairy industry.

Like many, Kerby is not surprised. He suspected this day would come when he was the state’s cotton specialist. Also like most, Kerby is surprised at the rapid decline that has seen acreage from more than 1 million acres in the past decade to just over 500,000 this year. Many believe it will fall even more.

However, Deltapine will likely never abandon California because it is one of the best places in the world to produce planting seed. Every major seed company in the United States relies on California to generate planting seed. Quality is superior; quantity per acre is plentiful, and there is much less likelihood of losing seed production due to poor weather.

Kerby has stepped down as Deltapine vice president of technical service and has moved from company headquarters in Mississippi to Utah to be closer to his family. However, he continues to work as Deltapine’s director of technical products.

“I have lived in Utah for five weeks and been home one week of the five,” he laughed.

Deltapine has bred and released SJV Acalas since it came into the valley almost 30 years ago when the valley was opened to commercial breeding. As Pima’s presence has grown, Deltapine offered Pima varieties, as well.

According to regional sales manager Glenn Powell, Deltapine pimas were planted on about 60 percent of what he calls the “non-Boswell” pima acreage. J.G. Boswell in Corcoran is the valley’s largest pima grower with reportedly about 80,000 acres of pima. Boswell does not publicly release acreage. That leaves roughly 200,000 acres of pima outside of Boswell, which is a partner with Dow AgroSciences in Phytogen Seed Co.

Powell said Deltapine’s widely adapted 340 was planted on about half that 200,000 of SJV Pima acreage this year. Deltapine has a newly approved pima, 353. Powell says there will be enough seed to plant about 17,000 to 18,000 acres in 2007.

Deltapine pima breeder Jim Olvey said 353 quality is about the same as 340, but yields are higher.

Olvey told growers at the Tranquillity, Calif., meeting that he is developing the “next generation” of Pimas with strengths of 40 grams to 45 grams per tex. “I have some that have reached the 60 level,” he added. The stronger pimas are two to three years away and are designed to compete with manmade fibers in the world textile market.

Powell estimates Pima acreage could hit the 300,000 acre mark next season, roughly 30,000 acres more than this year. He is estimating Acala/upland at about 225,000 acres, 30,000 less than this year.

Deltapine has four new Acalas in the San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board Acala trials. Three are Roundup Flex varieties. One is a Roundup Ready variety. There will be 1,000 bags of each available for planting in 2007.

Powell is one of those on the roller-ginned Acala bandwagon. He says Deltapine is developing experiments for that market with high strength Acalas. “If we can get Acalas in that 40 to 44 strength range, growers should get higher premiums for roller-ginned Acala than currently available,” Powell said.

Kerby came from Utah to tout what are called “California uplands” in the San Joaquin Valley. Elsewhere in the United States, they are simply upland cotton.

These are “non-approved” non-Acala cottons Deltapine aggressively recruits growers to grow for seed. These are some of Deltapine’s leading Cotton Belt varieties and generally yield better than valley Acalas, but are often discounted by merchants as “non-approved” cotton varieties.

Most are Flex varieties, which are not yet available in SJV Acalas. Many are Bollgard II varieties.

Powell points out that 110RF is equal to Acala Maxxa quality and yielded a half bale more cotton compared to Phytogen 72 in trials at the University of California West Side Research and Extension Center at Five Points, Calif.

“Two hundred and fifty pounds more cotton per acre will go a long way in overcoming any lint discounts,” Powell said.

Deltapine launched 110RF last year, according to Kerby. It is widely adapted across the United States, especially in areas where growers get 2 bales or more in production.

Deltapine 117 B2RF will be marketed in the San Joaquin with only a $5 tech fee for the Bollgard II gene. It will carry the standard Flex tech fee. Kerby says is has the same fiber package as 110RF.

Deltapine 167RF developed from the company’s Western breeding program has the highest heat tolerance of any variety Deltapine has released. “I expect better results from this variety in the San Joaquin from the two-week heat spell that hurt a lot of other valley varieties this year,” Kerby noted.

This variety has the second longest staple of all Deltapine cottons grown in the valley, 38.2 with an average strength of 32.1 grams per tex.

Kerby called Deltapine’s 444 BG/RR a “breakthrough” variety, one that is high yielding with low micronaire.

Kerby recalled the Beltwide Cotton Conference five years ago when growers raked seed companies over the goal for not providing higher yielding, better quality cotton to compete in world markets.

Cotton breeders have long contended it is virtually impossible to have both; the higher the yield, the lower the quality, particularly high micronaire.

“444 breaks that link,” Kerby said. According to company literature, growers can expect to see a low 4.0 micronaire reading on classing cards. It yielded slightly more than 1,400 pounds of lint at WREC last year and classed at a 4.3 micronaire.

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