Monday, November 17, 2014

Despite Challenges Valley Cotton Growers Are Looking at a Productive Year

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, the fall cotton harvest is pretty much done. It will take a while before we know how cotton fared this year – both in yields and quality – during the state’s severe drought. Gins are still keeping busy processing the freshly picked fiber.

Pacific Ginning Co. worker wraps a bale of cotton.
To get a recap about the 2014 cotton season, we caught up with Dan Munk, a cotton production and water management expert and farm advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Fresno County. 
UCCE Fresno cotton expert Dan Munk.

Question: How cotton did do this year?
Answer: This was a good cotton year. We started out with good early warm spring planting conditions. The crop developed well early on.

Q: What was the advantage of a warm spring?
 A: We went into bloom earlier than most seasons. That was important because early bloom means we get good early seed fertilization.  We had good boll development early on.

Q:  Were there any disease management issues this season?
Growers continued to deal with Race 4 fusarium willt issues.
A: We did see Race 4 fusarium wilt continues to be a problem for many growers in the valley. We have a lot of information available for growers to deal with the problem. (Race 4 is a fungus in the soil. It can infect plants and cause a vascular wilt in a number of cotton varieties. The spores can be spread through regular farming practices such as irrigation and cultivation. You can learn more about fusarium wilt from the University of California IPM online.)

Q: Did growers deal with many pest problems?
Aphids were a concern this season.
A: Generally insects were fairly low to moderate this year. We probably had above average aphid and white fly issues late in the season. In some areas that will create a problem with lint quality. Sticky cotton is not something we want to be allowing into the market. It was an issue this year more so than in previous years.
Q: Was this a productive year for growers?
 A: Overall we had a good production season. In areas where water availability was low we’re probably going to see lower yields. We simply weren’t able to meet the full evapotranspiration demands of the crop.
Q: What do you think the overall cotton yields will be in 2014?
A: We don’t expect record yields this year because of the drought. But they probably will be well above the five-year average for cotton in the San Joaquin Valley.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Alfalfa Season Winds Down after a Wild Year for Growers

Valley alfalfa growers are ready to call it a season.

Field scout Carlos Silva says there are some fields remaining to be harvested one last time in 2014. Look for the final cutting to start this week. For the most part, he says, “everything is wrapping up.”
A Valley grower bales freshly cut alfalfa.
Whew. This year certainly has been a wild roller coaster ride for growers and alfalfa, the crop with the largest acreage in California. Of course, we all know the culprit: D-R-O-U-G-H-T – a topic that dominated the chatter at local coffee shops, the state Capitol, the governor’s office and even the White House.
Let’s review some of the headlines and story lines in 2014. In January, two University of California at Davis ag experts wrote that “the continued drought in California will have serious impacts to forage production in 2014. In the Central Valley, it is expected that growers will shift water resources from alfalfa to trees and vines…” 

Dairies ended up feeding their cows less alfalfa this year.
Then in April a headline in the industry publication Hay & Forage Grower read: “First crop alfalfa sales brisk in Central California.”  Top-quality hay was fetching up to $350 a ton, up $80 a ton from the previous year.

By July, Hay & Forage reported “groundwater pumping is expected to replace most river water losses, with some areas more than doubling their pumping over the previous year.”
Then in September, a headline read: “California hay prices and alfalfa yields drop.” The best alfalfa was selling for $300 a ton as dairies fed their cows less hay. UC experts predicted a 20 percent decline in yields.

Then in October, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service issued its forecast, predicting California alfalfa hay production will raise 8 percent to 6.6 million tons from 2013.

We’ll have to wait for the final numbers to come in to see what kind of year it really has been for growers. One thing is certain: No one ever said faming is easy.

Growers were able to stretch their season until the fall.
On the bright side, growers were able to access enough water to continue their season into the fall and get their eight cuttings in as usual. Many thought they would be lucky if harvest lasted through June.

Meanwhile, on the pest front, Carlos reports bug problems were in check for most growers. There was a slight uptick in aphids early in the season and some issues with worms in fields but nothing widespread. Overall, Carlos says, “there weren’t many pest issues this year.”  At least, there was one silver lining for alfalfa growers.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Cotton Growers Speed Up Harvest to Beat the Rain

 Last week, we talked about rain and the cotton harvest in the San Joaquin Valley. Well a strange thing happened during this unprecedented drought year: Rain.

Grower Doug Goodman operates his John Deere harvester.
In fact, local communities reported a nice amount of wet stuff over the weekend, starting with Halloween night. The Fresno area, for example, received two-tenths of an inch of wet stuff late Friday into early Saturday, the National Weather Service reports.

With the storm looming, farmers ran cotton harvests virtually around the clock last week to pick as much cotton as possible ahead of the rain.
Goodman unloads a round module of freshly picked cotton.
“We’re expecting rain (Friday). The big rush to harvest the cotton before the rain is because of quality issues,” says farmer Doug Goodman, who was running a large green John Deere cotton picker in the Firebaugh area. He explains soggy fiber can change color when mixed with leaves and other trash collected by the picker and then compressed into a module. The result is a lower grade on the quality report card from the cotton gin.

Tag to track the round module.
 “We have another thousand acres to go. It is really important to get the cotton out when the weather is good,” Doug says.

About eight tenths of  of an inch of rain fell over the weekend in the Valley, surpassing the six-month total amount of rain the region received from May 1 to October 3. This certainly shows you how fickle farming can be.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Cotton Growers Welcome Dry Weather …This Time of Year

Throughout the year, dry weather dominated the talk among farmers across the San Joaquin Valley.  In the winter and early spring, they looked to the skies for a heavy helping of wet weather to come, but came up empty.
Indian summer arrives in time for the cotton harvest.
This time of year, though, dry weather is welcomed by cotton growers with the fall harvest in full swing. So far, we’ve been experiencing a rain-free October with the daily temperatures averaging nearly 89 degrees – some 15 degrees above the historic average, according to the National Weather Service. October normally averages about one-third inch of rain.
Some years, we have seen above-average rainfall totals – storms that slowed the harvest and threatened fiber quality.
We remember that three years ago -- October 5 to be precise – Mother Nature dropped nearly an inch of rain. We fondly recall October 13, 2009 when 1.28 inches of rain drenched Valley cotton fields.  That day, dozens of visitors touring the cotton fields during the Sustainable Cotton Project’s annual farm tour got soaked as they slogged through the muddy fields to get a close look at water-logged fiber. By the way, another .11 inches fell the next day. 
There are no worries about rain-soaked cotton this season.
Usually, a little rain helps wash off any dust or sticky honeydew on the plants. As long as the sun comes out and there’s a nice warm wind blowing the next day, the cotton will dry sufficiently to avoid any concerns about mold or mildew problems.

This year, our Indian summer is perfect weather for cotton harvesting – as well as Jack o’ lanterns, scare crows and trips to the pumpkin patch. This Halloween, growers are counting on a nice treat – good cotton quality.
Field scout Carlos Silva says all growers have finished defoliating their cotton plants. He estimates about half of the fields have been harvested.  On the pest front, white fly and aphid populations have been in check, allaying fears about sticky cotton. 
Sign warns about defoliation.
Speaking of farm tours, you might see a couple tour buses rumbling around the cotton fields on Thursday. The ever-popular Cotton Farm Tour takes place again. Sponsored by the San Joaquin Sustainable Farming Project, the annual free event offers visitors from fashion brands, design students, government agencies and other community members a behind-the-scenes look at the many sides of cotton production. 
One more cutting looms for Valley alfalfa growers.

Meanwhile, Carlos says most alfalfa growers are experiencing a rather normal season. By his count, some three out of four growers are looking at harvesting one more time. Some are even squeezing out one more crop without irrigating this round.

Cutting started last week and more alfalfa harvesting will continue this week.