Cotton planting in the West: from normal to roller coaster

Planting conditions ranged from normal to a roller coaster ride as the 2007 cotton planting season kicked off for many California and Arizona cotton growers.

In the San Joaquin Valley (SJV), many growers put planters in the field March 10, the first legal date under the host-free winter pink bollworm program.

As SJV planting progressed, the season turned into a carnival ride.

“It was a roller coaster, which led to a somewhat strange planting season,” says University of California (UC) Cooperative Extension Cotton Specialist Bob Hutmacher.

“There wasn't much rain, but temperatures were up and down. March temperatures that ranged into the upper 80s, plus high winds, caused some problems for early plantings. Temperatures in April were all over the place, with some nighttime lows near freezing.”

“You certainly couldn't describe it as cold and wet — the wet wasn't there. The cold temps on several occasions were low enough to cause some chilling injuries in a few situations.”

Even without much rain, cooler temperatures led to significant stand losses from seedling diseases. Rhizoctonia was the most common, and worse compared to most other years. Damage was not devastating, yet some fields were hit fairly hard, Hutmacher says.

“Rhizoctonia was encouraged by cold temperatures for a longer duration. Cloudy weather didn't really encourage cotton to grow, so it sat there and got picked away by seedling diseases.”

Other seedling diseases included pythium and thielaviopsis, but at lesser levels. Less than 10 percent of the SJV cotton crop was replanted due to seedling diseases and cold weather, Hutmacher estimates. Most replanting was patchy, not entire fields.

Many locations in the SJV missed most of the rains from January on.

“In those places, even if they pre-plant irrigated, there were water issues by the time people finally got in fields.” Some growers waited for more favorable conditions in April.

In general, the northern SJV was planted later and, in some cases, had less seedling disease.

About 95 percent of California's cotton is grown in the SJV, with about 5,000 to 6,000 acres in the Sacramento Valley, and about 10,000 to 13,000 acres in Southern California, Hutmacher says.

How much cotton was planted in California in '07? Hutmacher has heard ranges from 420,000 to 480,000 acres, a large reduction from the '06 crop of about 570,000 acres. Pima in 2007 will likely total more than 250,000 acres.

Water will be the key for SJV cotton crop, he says

“We'll have quite a spread in field status in different parts of the valley. Some fields that had an earlier start will see the first irrigation quite a bit earlier than the later plantings. I think that will be a concern.

“I hope farmers can be judicious in making some of the first irrigation decisions and avoid irrigating plants for lush, heavy growth. Late season water — if you have to run a well to get it, or buy it on the market in some of the water-short irrigation districts — will be really expensive water.

“With water costs and availability, growers need to try to reign it in and, hopefully, not be too excessive in how water and the crop are managed.”

Pest pressures could be a problem in cotton due to high heat and neighboring crops. Hutmacher had already seen some strawberry mites by early May.

“Some fields have had mite issues earlier than I would have expected,” he says.

Hutmacher expects some limited expansion this year of the soil-based disease Race 4 fusarium (Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. Vasinfectum).

“Hopefully growing more resistant varieties like Phytogen 800 will slow it down. So far this spring, I've seen Race 4 a bit farther out from where I've seen it before.”

To date, the UC has confirmed Race 4 fusarium in 60 to 70 fields in the same counties where it was found in 2006, including Kern, Kings, Tulare, and Fresno.

Hutmacher estimates the Southern California cotton acreage at 15,000 acres or less between the Imperial Valley and Palo Verde Valley areas.

California's Sacramento Valley

UC Farm Advisor Doug Munier in Glenn County says some Sacramento Valley growers planted cotton in March with good success, with the balance planted in April.

“There was a little more replanting this year, caused by weather and seedling diseases, but it wasn't bad. As they went into later April, a number of growrs had to irrigate it up, and that created additional problems when cold weather followed.

“Stands were a little skippy, given the erratic weather, and we'll probably have slightly lower stand populations in many fields, but they should be adequate for good yields.”

Pythium is the seedling disease usually seen in the Sacramento Valley, Munier says.

He has worked with a farmer and a local seed company on Pima test plots over the last two years.

Northern California growers have wanted to capitalize on the Pima boom, but so far the longer season extra long staple (ELS) cotton has not done well in the shorter NorCal growing season.

“The Pima variety that looked the best in 2006 was Hazera 175; it was the highest-yielding variety in the plots,” Munier says. “What complicates growing Pima up here is that we don't have a local roller gin. Pima has to yield a lot better and the price has to be higher to justify trucking it south to a roller gin.”

Lower stand populations could lead to weed issues, including velvetleaf, field bindweed, and cocklebur, Munier says.

Arizona cotton

Cotton planting in Arizona was a mixed bag, depending on the region.

University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Area Specialist Randy Norton says the state's typically first-planted region, Yuma, in southwest Arizona, was hammered by high winds and alternating cold and warm temperatures.

“In eastern Arizona, some replanting occurred due to hot-cold temperatures, and winds of 40 to 45 mph that sandblasted some plants. High winds on small cotton seedlings can give them a heavy beating. You lose terminals and the apex of the plant can get knocked out.”

For the most part, though, spring weather wasn't that bad, Norton says. Marana (southern Arizona) and Safford (eastern Arizona) were the last areas where cotton went in the ground.

Rhizoctonia hammered Cochise County in eastern Arizona, along with freeze damage in early April that required some replanting. Cotton plantings after April 15 fared well, Norton says.

Safford and Cochise Counties were the only Arizona cotton areas with seedling diseases in early May.

While the National Cotton Council has projected about 190,000 acres of Arizona cotton in 207, Norton predicts about 180,000 acres.

He thinks Yuma County has about 1,000 acres of Pima. While Pima is traditionally planted in eastern Arizona fields, the high projections for California (estimated at 300,000 acres) plus lower prices, dissuaded the eastern counties from planting Pima this year, Norton says.

Another reason for the Pima decline is Arizona's pink bollworm (PBW) eradication program. The Arizona Cotton Growers Association and the Arizona Cotton Research and Protection Council have encouraged growers to plant Bt cotton, only available in Upland varieties, Norton notes.

This year, counties in eastern and central Arizona are entering second-year PBW eradication efforts. La Paz and Mohave Counties on the state's western side are beginning their first year in the program. Yuma County will enter the program in 2008.

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