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Weather issues signal moderate cotton yield potential in the West

A cold and windy spring for cotton planting followed by a roller coaster ride of searing hot temperatures and even more chilling air may have iced the potential for banner cotton yields this year in the West.

“I think this is shaping up to be a moderate yield potential year in California cotton,” said Bob Hutmacher, University of California statewide cotton specialist.

A rocky start characterizes the effects of cool to downright cold temperatures compounded by walloping winds that dried out seedlings during and after planting for much of California's cotton crop this spring. Hutmacher suggests growers be realistic in terms of yield expectations in affected fields and react accordingly.

“I wouldn't take every field and say it's worth 200 pounds of nitrogen and a full regular water program until the grower assesses it,” Hutmacher said.

Digging up plants with a shovel is the best tool in the early season to determine root system development and the plant's ability to develop significant vigor, Hutmacher said. If a field remains relatively low in vigor, this will have a bearing on irrigation plans and plant growth regulator use.

“The cotton plants I'm most concerned about didn't gain good root development during the cold and windy period. These plants are at risk and not well hooked into the soil,” Hutmacher said.

The typical cotton-growing regimen begins with a pre-plant irrigation followed by irrigation when plants reach the 7th, 8th, or 9th true leaf stage, typically in late May to early June. Plants lacking normal root structure to extend down into the soil for deeper moisture could be at risk.

Hutmacher reported dry plant problems along the Interstate 5 corridor from Los Banos to Kings County in mid-May.

“A significant number of fields have issues of drying out early. With water availability and cost issues this year, it's a hard call to irrigate fields earlier than usual,” Hutmacher said. Most California cotton is grown on the Central Valley's west side.

“Cotton is a pretty darn tough survivor under some pretty nasty (weather) conditions,” Hutmacher said. “I have seen some plants that without irrigation will not likely make it through a significant hot spell.”

On the disease side, Hutmacher has received several phone calls about four new suspected Pima cotton fields containing the soil-borne disease Race 4 FOV (Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. Vasinfectum). No confirmation of the disease has been made, Hutmacher said, but the suspect fields are located within the current counties where Race 4 FOV has been confirmed — Fresno, Kern, Kings, and Tulare.

Dan Munk, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for cotton, water, and soils, Fresno County, said this year's cotton crop was off to a slow but steady start. Munk and Hutmacher in May found the plant pathogenic fungus Rhizoctonia solani in fields, a disease that causes cotton seedling death. The cotton specialists also found thrips feeding on crop terminals, a common occurrence in San Joaquin Valley cotton fields.

Cotton acreage is down significantly in California this year and to a lesser extent in Arizona, resulting in changing crop rotation patterns linked to lower 2007 cotton prices and significant price increases for other crops.

“I'm seeing a lot more acreage that's not a cotton-cotton rotation,” Munk said. “It's cotton-small grains, cotton-vegetables, or cotton-forage. This will make us a stronger industry. We have the options to grow alternative crops with cotton which changes the dynamics in managing the crop.”

About 100,000 acres of cotton were planted in Fresno County last year. While it's too early to predict cotton acreage in Fresno this year, Pima cotton represents about three-quarters of the plantings, Munk said.

Statewide, California cotton growers planted about 450,000 acres of cotton last year, according to Earl Williams, president and chief executive officer of the California Cotton Growers Association and the California Cotton Ginners Association. Pima plantings included about 260,000 acres with about 192,000 acres of short staple.

“The economics on cotton was that people were looking for an excuse not to plant cotton,” Williams said. “I don't blame them when you're looking at higher prices for other crops; some requiring less water than cotton and some using more.”

Williams predicts the California cotton acreage tally this year at 270,000 to 275,000 acres, including about 175,000 in Pima and 100,000 short staple. Despite the fewer acres, Williams said the state's cotton industry is not about to throw in the towel.

“Cotton will shine again in 2009,” Williams said. “If cotton prices increase by the end of this year and into next year, we could see a rebound in cotton acreage, but not a rebound to the million acres once grown in California. When you're sitting at 275,000 acres and you bump up to 325,000 acres, we think it's a bonanza. Cotton is not done yet.”

Williams' optimism is tied partly to the development of specialty-type cottons and niche markets. To expand acreage, growers need minimum price levels of 80-85 cents per pound for short staple and $1.20 for Pima, Williams said, also depending on a variety of issues including affordable water.

In Arizona, cotton planting stayed on track in Yuma County. No seedling disease was observed, and minimal whitefly pressure was noted this spring by Kurt Nolte, director, University of Arizona (UA) Cooperative Extension, Yuma County.

Nolte predicts 10,000 acres of cotton in Yuma County this year compared to 15,000 to 20,000 last season. Most of the ground is planted in Upland with about 1,000 acres of Pima.

Cotton grower Aubrey Hatley, Associated Farms, Scottsdale, Ariz., dry planted and irrigated up 2,000 acres of Upland cotton this spring. The cold spring delayed crop growth by 7-10 days but expensive replanting was avoided.

“The fields are not growing off as good,” said Hatley, winner of the 2008 Western Farm Press High Cotton Award. At press time, cotton plants were at third and fourth true leaves. Hatley planted Deltapine's 449 BR, 161 B2RF, 164 B2RF, and 555 BG/RR seed, plus some Fibermax seed this year.

In Arizona's Upper Gila River Valley (Safford area), temperatures dropped to 39 degrees during the planting window creating marginal conditions. High winds sandblasted seedlings out of the ground, according to Randy Norton, UA Regional Extension cotton specialist.

“Some of the large seed, high vigor varieties can come through that,” Norton said. “The smaller sized seed varieties don't have the ‘umph’ to make it through.”

Acreage in the area should mirror last year's total, 25,000 to 26,000 acres. In Cochise County, about 1,500 acres of cotton was planted, including about 120 acres of organic Pima near Bonita, Ariz.

Lint average in the Upper Gila River Valley was 1,200 to 1,300 pounds per acre with some yields topping 1,700 pounds, Norton said. Upper Gila River Valley farmers grow 99.9 percent Upland. The only Pima is grown at the Safford Agricultural Experiment Station.

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