Monday, September 28, 2015

Clackety-clack: The Sounds of Cotton Harvest Are in the Air

Clackety-clack. Clackety-clack. Clackety-clack.

That’s the sound of harvesters crisscrossing acres and acres of cotton fields around the San Joaquin Valley as twirling spindles twist the fresh cotton from the burrs attached to the dried plant stems. 

Yes, the cotton harvest has begun after the first seeds were planted some 180 days ago. Field scout Carlos Silva reports the first sightings of cotton harvesters this week. Activity will certainly pick up in the coming weeks.

Harvesters are now starting to pick cotton in the Valley.
It won’t be long before we’ll see lots of round and rectangular cotton modules lining the field margins, ready to be hauled off the nearby gins for processing.

Continued hot weather translates into ideal picking conditions. There’s no signs of cool damp weather or fog to slow down picking – that may be one of the positives of the state’s severe drought.

Speaking of the drought, we have to give credit to those growers who have stuck with cotton as water supplies became tighter and tighter and more expensive.

The drought will reduce the amount of cotton harvested.
Cotton acreage certainly has taken a beating during these past four rain-starved years. Estimates put this year’s cotton planting at 162,000 acres (almost a third grown in the San Joaquin Valley), according to a survey by the California Pink Bollworm Program. That’s the lowest total since the Great Depression.

Upland cotton comes in at 46,000 acres while Pima checks in at about 116,000 acres. Growers are inclined to plant more Pima because the variety commands a greater price. Most of the nation’s high-quality Pima is grown in California. A number of long-time growers have told us they have remained dedicated to cotton because it serves as a good rotational crop.

While the cotton harvest is gearing up, the alfalfa crop is winding down its harvest season. Carlos reports one grower has finished cutting his alfalfa and others should start following suit this week. With the arrival of fall, this could be the final cutting of the year for many growers.

The alfalfa season is starting to wind down this year.
Except for a few growers who ended their alfalfa season early to divert water to other crops, most were able to continue harvesting throughout the summer. They should end up with the usual 10 or so cuttings for the season. By maintaining production, growers have been able to keep supplying high quality alfalfa to California’s valuable dairy and cattle industry.

Alfalfa is important to keep the dairy and cattle industry fed.
Indeed, alfalfa plays an integral role in state’s $46 billion ag economy. A 2007 University of California report titled “Alfalfa Production Systems in California” called the dairy-forage connection “the state’s most important agricultural enterprise. The linkage with dairy products and other animal enterprises (such as beef cattle, horses, goats and sheep) has caused alfalfa and forage crops to play a significant role in the state.”
Hey, let’s give shout out to those growers who perserveredduring the historic drought and kept on farming alfalfa. We can say they helped keep California’s economy “moo-ving” forward.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Now is the Time to Plants the Seeds for a New Alfalfa Crop

As alfalfa growers wrap up the long spring-to-summer season, some are already looking to plant the seeds for a new field of hay.

Yes, now through early October is the ideal time for growers to establish a new stand of the perennial crop in California, especially in the San Joaquin Valley, says Dan Putman, an alfalfa extension specialist with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Davis.

Now is the ideal time to plant new alfalfa fields in the Valley.
“I’ve seen so many failures with alfalfa from not planting at the right time,” Dan told a group of farmers at a recent alfalfa field day. Those who plant in late November, for example, often run into cold, wet weather, which isn’t conducive to good growth.

“It’s a slow growing seedling. We’re so eager to start harvesting the crop that we don’t realize we have to set it,” he said. During the first six months, it’s important for new alfalfa plants to establish deep roots – usually five to six feet deep.

Alfalfa seedlings need time to establish their roots.
By developing this deep root system, alfalfa can better withstand pest, weed and drought pressures. During the cold weather, winter weeds will compete with the young alfalfa.

A UC Agriculture and Natural Resources “Alfalfa Stand Establishment” manual published in December 2007 calls seedling establishment “a critical phase in the life of an alfalfa stand, impacting production for many years.”

Dan reports growers losing 1 to 1 ½ tons of yield because they plant their field a couple weeks late. A 1977-1978 field study in Yolo County and the Sacramento Valley found yields confirms the difference:

  •     September 14 plantings yielded 17.2 tons per acre during the first two years
  •     October 17 plantings yielded 16 tons per acre during the first two years
  •    November 16 plantings yielded 14.5 tons per acre during the first two years

Dan also advises growers to work with their pest control advisors to determine the best varieties to resist pest and plant disease pressures in their area.In looking back at severe drought this season – which put a crimp on acreage – Dan describes alfalfa as the best crop to have in a drought, especially with its deep root systems. 

Proper timing of alfalfa planting can boost future yields.
Alfalfa originated in regions that endured long, hot dry summers and wet winters – like the Northern San Joaquin Valley. “You can roll with the punches in a drought year. It is a resilient crop. It will come back another day to yield well.”

Meanwhile, Dan mentioned some growers are testing buried drip systems in more than a dozen fields. Interest is widening as some growers report an increase of 2 to 2 ½ tons in yield. Drip provides more consistent watering throughout the season.

On the down side, drip systems are prone to rodent and gopher damage. “It is a challenge. They will chew on lines. There will be leaks.” Some growers have walked awayfrom drip because of the gopher problems. To be successful, growers must be willing ramp up their pest management game.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Moving Toward the Final Stage Before Cotton Picking Time

If you look skyward around the Valley these days, you might see a few signs the cotton harvest is just around the corner. 

The sight is a crop duster buzzing the lush, green cotton fields, applying defoliants to the crop. That means we’re heading down the back stretch toward the day growers start picking the cotton lint.
A crop duster applies defoliant to a cotton field.
“It’s happening now,” field scout Carlos Silva says about the start of defoliation. “I’m seeing warning signs (to stay out of the treated fields.)”

It won’t be long before we’ll see harvesters in the fields. Usually, the cotton is ready to harvest about two to three weeks after defoliation.

Why do growers defoliate their cotton fields?

Well, defoliation helps the mature bolls open fully and ensures that lint is free from leaves and other trash. In the meantime, immature bolls will stay immature. The treatment causes the leaves to drop and plant to start drying. This helps the harvesting machines pick the cotton cleanly off the plants and lessen the amount of leaves and debris – or trash in industry parlance – collected during the harvest.

There’s a certain art and science to defoliation. If growers defoliate too early, their yields can be affected because there are too many immature bolls left on the plants. If the field is defoliated too late, the field could wind up with pest damage. 

There's an art and science to defoliation timing.
A common guide to determine when to defoliate is using a Nodes Above Cracked Boll (NACB) method. Find the highest first position boll that is cracked and showing lint and then count the number of harvestable bolls above it. It’s fairly safe to defoliate at three NACB for the Pima varieties and four for Acala.

Some growers, however, may opt to defoliate early. They may worry about aphid and whitefly populations threatening the crop and causing sticky cotton problems – figuring they can sacrifice a little yield in order to get a head start on harvesting.Of course, there are advantages for holding off with defoliation and allowing more fruit to mature. Either way, it’s a decision that’s not taken lightly by growers.

“Defoliation is the last operation where management decisions can have a large impact on profit, a lot of dollars are hinging on making the right decision,” UC Integrated Pest Management says. Go to UC IPM online to learn about scheduling defoliation in cotton.
Sticky cotton remains a concern for growers.
 Meanwhile, Carlos says he is seeing a rise in aphids and whitefly in fields that haven’t been defoliated yet. He warns growers to keep on top of them to avoid honeydew build up and sticky cotton.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Even King Tut Would Just Say Nuts to These Mummies

This time of year, Jenna Mayfield sees tens of thousands of almonds carpeting orchard floors across the San Joaquin Valley.
Amid the drying almonds are mummy nuts.

Among the sea of green leaves and hulls and brown nuts drying on the ground are a sprinkling of black mummy nuts. Jenna bristles at this sight.

“It’s one of the things that drives me crazy,” Jenna says about the presence of mummies. “It’s frustrating.”

Like a broken record, Jenna along with UC IPM and extension advisors have stressed year after year the importance of ridding almond orchards of mummy nuts. This zero tolerance stance makes a lot of economic and environmental sense. 

Discolored kernels.
Research from the Almond Board of California and UC shows that leaving mummy nuts on the trees during the winter will boost the population of overwintering navel orangeworm (NOW) and ultimately increase the number of rejected nuts at the processor due to insect damage at harvest time. NOW damage also decreases overall yield. The almond industry sets a high bar for growers – reducing NOW damage to 2 percent. 

Almond experts point out that not every mummy nut has NOW damage. Some kernels remain intact for the second season but can be moldy, rancid or discolored. These, too, are rejects and impact the grower’s quality grade.

Get rid of those mummy nuts.
Jenna says some growers won’t bother with winter sanitation to save money. They don’t want to pay for workers to go from tree to tree knocking off the mummies.In the long run, that frugal practice can backfire. Growers either wind up spending more money to treat for NOW or losing more bucks because of the rejects and lower grade.

Moreover, knocking off the mummies is a good non-chemical solution to battle NOW infestation and nut damage. “Get rid of the mummies this winter,” Jenna says flatly.

Meanwhile, field scout Carlos Silva says cotton bolls have opened up in every field across the Valley. Aphids are still lingering and now whiteflies are starting to show up, too. Growers need to keep close tabs on these pests to avoid sticky cotton.

Carlos expects defoliation to start within the next couple weeks. That means harvest is just around the corner as we head down the back stretch of summer.

Alfalfa also is starting to wind down. Despite the severe drought, many growers had enough water to stretch the growing season into a fairly normal year. While aphids remain in the fields, their numbers aren’t high enough to warrant treatment.

Field Day Alert: Here’s a reminder thatthe Almond Post Harvest Management Field Day is set for 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Thursday at the corner of Mercy Springs Road and Cotton Gin Road in Los Banos. Pomologist David Doll of UCCE Merced County will talk about fall and dormant cultural practices to reduce disease and maximize next season’s tree productivity. UCCE IPM Advisor Dr. Jhalendra Rijal will discuss seasonal considerations for pest monitoring in almonds and Ganesh Vishwanath of SeaNutri will cover the use of seaweed-based products in farming. Two continuingeducation credits areavailable as well as CCA credits. For more information, contact Marcia Gibbs of the San Joaquin Sustainable Farming Project at (530) 370-5325.

Monday, August 31, 2015

San Joaquin Valley Almond Harvest is Just Going Nuts

It’s just nuts out there.

That’s how field scout Jenna Mayfield describes the buzz of activity taking place in almond orchards across the San Joaquin Valley. “Harvest is happening everywhere – day and night,” Jenna points out.
Yes, tree shakers and orchard floor sweepers are working around the clock to harvest the state’s No. 1 export crop.

Tree shaking occurring all day long.
It’s safe to say there is a plenty of work to do – like 890,000 acres worth of almonds in the state. For each tree, there’s an estimated 5,829 nuts to shake off, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). (Amazing how they can come up with such a precise nut count.)

How far along each grower and each orchard are in the harvest varies greatly. It varies by region in which climate and water availability can play a role. “There’s some orchard blocks that are a month away from harvest,” Jenna says.

The size of an almond operation can play a role in the harvest timing as well.

Jenna notes the farms with smaller acreage can get squeezed. Larger operations have an advantage because of their sheer size. Contractors hired to shake trees and sweep up the fallen nuts will make more money from the larger operations – thereby giving them more priority.

A sweeper blows nuts into a pile for collecting off the ground.
That can create problems for growers waiting a while for a sweeper to arrive – even though the nuts may be ready to be collected and hauled off to the processor. The longer the nuts sit on the ground, the greater the potential for ant damage.

While growers can breathe easier once the harvest is over, they still won’t have much time to take relax. There are plenty of post-harvest chores ahead.

Jenna says one of the early tasks on the checklist is inspecting the irrigation lines. This should be done even during mid-harvest after the first time the shakers and sweepers go through the orchard.
Workers repair broken almond tree drip lines.
The harvesting machines can wreck havoc with irrigation lines as well as sprinkler heads and emitters. “Drip lines can be spread all over the place. It’s fairly commonly.” The result: Some areas of the orchard will be flooded while other sections are left thirsty after growers turn on the water tap.

Jenna has first-hand experience. During one of her recent scouting outings, Jenna spotted one section of orchard inundated with water because of a busted line. She waded through the mud and muck to try to make repairs, knowing the grower couldn’t afford to waste precious and costly water supplies. Jenna eventually found crews to fix the line.

In the meantime, field scout Carlos Silva reports alfalfa growers are irrigating their fields again, a good sign that the season will extend into September. The drought sparked fears that the alfalfa season would be cut short as growers divert their water supplies to other crops. A few did that earlier this summer. But Carlos say most have persevered.

In cotton, “everyone has pretty much wrapped up the last irrigation. All the fields are starting to show open bolls,”  Carlos says. Coming up will be defoliation and then the fall harvest.
The cotton crop is getting the final irrigation of the season.

On the pest front, aphid populations are still high in the cotton fields while whitefly has remained in check. Growers need to keep monitoring for these pest to avoid sticky cotton.

Meanwhile, this month’s NASS crop production report estimated the California growers will harvest 50,000 acres of upland cotton, yielding 1,728 pounds per acre. Pima acreage is estimated at 109,000 acres with a yield put at 1,541 pounds per acre.
Field Day Alert: Growers should check out the Almond Post Harvest Management Field Day from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 10, at the corner of Mercy Springs Road and Cotton Gin Road in Los Banos. Pomologist David Doll of UCCE Merced County will talk about fall and dormant cultural practices to reduce disease and maximize next season’s tree productivity. UCCE IPM Advisor Dr. Jhalendra Rijal will discuss seasonal considerations for pest monitoring in almonds and Ganesh Vishwanath of SeaNutri will cover the use of seaweed-based products in farming. Two continuingeducation credits areavailable as well as CCA credits. For more information, contact Marcia Gibbs of the San Joaquin Sustainable Farming Project at (530) 370-5325.