Pima cotton research plot in California

An experimental variety of Pima cotton growing at the Westside Research and Extension Center near Five Points, Calif. Growers planted about 116,000 acres of Pima cotton in California, compared to less than 50,000 acres of Upland/Acala cotton.

Cotton a mixed bag in 2015 across California

Anecdotal reports of five-bale cotton were heard from one experimental variety in California Late-season rain helped and hurt California growers at the same time California cotton acreage at about 10 percent of its all-time high.

As of the end of October, the cotton harvest was effectively done in California and nearly complete in Arizona.

For California cotton growers, rain and the rare probability of more during the current drought cycle pushed them to defoliate as soon as possible and get the crops up before the threat of El Niño rains became a reality.

California cotton grower Cannon Michael, president of Bowles Farming Company in Los Banos, reported a mix-bag of results after announcing in the last week of October that his Acala, Pima and Hazera varieties were on their way to the gin.

“Our Pima did a little less than what we wanted but our Acala and Hazera averaged a little over three-and-a-quarter bales,” Michael said.

Michael farms in the northern growing region of the San Joaquin Valley, where heat units tend to be lower and the growing season a little shorter than counties like Tulare, Kings and Kern.

Growing Pima in the region is a little more difficult because of the cooler climate, Michael says. Growing a hybrid like Hazera is an attempt to manage the best of both worlds between production and fiber length in the region.

“It’s hard for us to grow Pima up here,” he said. “The Hazera does a little better; the length is good and the strength is a little less than Pima.”

All of Michael’s cotton is roller ginned at Pacific Gin in Cantua Creek.

Water challenges

Water availability was the most significant challenge Michael faced this year. Even as a senior water rights holder Michael fallowed about 2,300 acres of farmland in 2015. He opted to not irrigate his alfalfa and allocate what little water he had to his cotton and processing tomatoes.

Like many farmers Michael is trying to remain optimistic about the long-term status of cotton as water availability provides challenges to growers. Cotton still remains a good rotational crop with canning tomatoes in the San Joaquin Valley.

“I’m hoping with the water and some good rain this winter things will turn around and we’ll get to plant more acres of cotton next year,” Michael says.

Tulare grower Mark Watte grew Phytogen 725 and an experimental variety that should be on the market in 2016 – Phytogen 764. Much of his crop was dedicated to the experimental variety.

Test trials last year in the PHY 764 yielded about a half-bale better than previous versions of Phytogen seed on good fiber quality and a slightly earlier harvest, Watte said. He was not impacted this year with Fusarium Race 4, which is increasing its yield-robbing presence in the San Joaquin Valley.

Watte, who is slated to be the next board chairmen for Cotton Incorporated, opted for an all-Acala crop this year because of the higher yields possible and the quality incentives he can achieve from his rich Tulare soil. His cotton is roller ginned, which he says gives him a good premium bonus that this year may close the price gap between Pima and Upland to within about 20 cents per pound.

The closer price differential Watte was able to achieve and the higher yields of the Acala crop made it easier to pencil out the choice between Pima and Acala.

Arizona

Adam Hatley of Associated Farming Company east of Scottsdale, Ariz. began harvesting his Upland varieties the last week of October. He grows 1,300 acres of Deltapine and Phytogen varieties.

Five varieties of Deltapine cotton are grown for seed production. He grows Phytogen 499 and 427 for fiber. He says he likes the PHY 427 for its nematode resistance.

His cotton is ginned Pinal Gin in Stanfield, Ariz.

Yields this year are expected in the three-bale range, which is down slightly from just under a four-bale average the past two seasons, Hatley said.

“If I’m north of three bales I’m happy,” he said.

Hatley said he considered growing Pima this year but the gin for Pima is located about three hours away in Yuma. He said he’s heard Pima yields in his region were between two and 2.5 bales per acre.

Depressed cotton prices and the lack of price supports pushed Hatley into other row crops. The 1,300 acres planted into cotton this year is the least he has ever planted.

“Three years ago I was growing 2,800 acres of cotton,” he said.

A decade ago he was pushing 3,000 acres of cotton.

“We could see the writing on the wall with cotton, so we’ve been growing more forage for dairies,” he said.

Being isolated from other cotton farms Hatley says his pest pressure remains fairly light. He likes to have his cotton planted by late March, depending on the weather, with harvest done by Nov. 1.

Acreage losses

California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations President Roger Isom says the loss of cotton acreage has taken a bite out of the infrastructure necessary to gin the state’s crop. This year three cotton gins – one each in Bakersfield, Buttonwillow and Firebaugh – permanently folded in California, leaving the state with 30 operating gins.

Water was the main factor for lower cotton acreages in California in 2015, which have been steadily declining for years anyway as growers move to higher-value permanent plantings. California cotton plantings in 2015 fell to about 160,000 acres of mostly Pima varieties. That’s the lowest cotton acreage in California since before the Great Depression.

Isom said rain during the harvest created some challenges for growers.

“Some guys defoliated then got hit with rain that left them with some regrowth and the need to defoliate again,” Isom said.

The rain left growers with some possible staining issues, but Isom says gins can opt to run that cotton first to mitigate those problems.

Conversely, the rain helped dissolve sugars left behind by feeding insects that could otherwise have created a sticky cotton issue. The California cotton industry worked hard this year to educate growers on treatment options for the white fly and other troublesome cotton pests.

“Guys definitely had to spray for white fly this year, but so far things look good,” Isom continued.

Growers of premium Pima cotton also had limited acres this year in California, but acreages were up in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, according to Marc Lewkowitz, executive vice president of the Phoenix-based Supima, promoters of textile and apparel products made of 100 percent American Pima cotton.

U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates peg California Pima production at 356,000 bales in 2015, down from 500,000 the previous year. Arizona Pima production is expected to be 43,000 bales, up from the 30,000 bales produced last year.

New Mexico’s Pima crop is expected to double to 16,000 bales and Texas is thought to have 36,000 bales of Pima this year, up from 28,000 last year, according to the USDA.

Lewkowitz says indications suggest the current crop of Supima cotton will be good this year though yields appear mixed across the Supima growing region of West Texas to California.

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