Monday, September 8, 2014

Cotton May No Longer Be King, But It Has a Place in the San Joaquin Valley's Kingdom

As a long-time UC extension cotton specialist, Dr. Bob Hutmacher has seen plenty of highs and lots of lows in the state’s cotton industry.

Cotton expert Bob Hutmacher
The face of California agriculture has certainly shifted from the days when cotton was king. Now grapes and almonds are the state’s top crops commodities. Indeed, the three straight dry years have contributed significantly to the further erosion of cotton acreage.

The recently released August crop forecast by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service in California illustrates the slide: Upland/acala cotton production in California is forecast at 220,000 thousand bales, a decrease of 34 percent from last year. Harvested acreage is estimated at 64,000 acres, down from 109,000 a year ago – a 41 percent decline. (Before the drought, acreage was 189,000 in 2011)

The NASS forecasts pima cotton production 500,000 bales, down 18 percent from last year. Harvested acreage is estimated at 149,000 acres, down from 169,000 acres in 2013 – a 21 percent drop. (Before the drought, acreage was 259,000 in 2011.)

Despite the slide, Hutmacher remains confident that “cotton has a fit” in California’s farmscape. Remember more than 90 percent of the nation’s American pima is grown in the Golden State.

Moreover, Hutmacher says cotton – unlike other crops like almonds or lettuce – can do fine even when water is in short supply and water quality is poor, especially if it comes from a well. “It is one of the most salt tolerant crops. You can use poorer quality water on cotton and use better quality on other high value crops,” he says.

Cotton growers have wrapped up their final irrigation of 2014.
Another plus is cotton plants respond well to water stress. For example, let’s say growers cut back on water by 50 percent. The yield won’t drop by half. You’ll get a partial reduction in yield – probably around 40 percent.

Hutmacher points out more cotton growers are getting into deficit irrigation. They are dropping at least one irrigation this season. In Kern County, Hutmacher sees some growers cutting out two to three irrigations on cotton, diverting that water for other crops such as tomatoes and garlic.

Hutmacher credits growers with implementing best management practices to maximize their cotton production. In other words, it’s profit per acre that counts. That should keep cotton part of the fabric of California agriculture.

Meanwhile, field scout Carlos Silva says the final cotton fields were irrigation in the past week as we head into the back stretch toward fall harvest. He looks for defoliation to start over the next few weeks.
Green lacewings are beneficial bugs.
So far, aphids and white flies remain under control. But Carlos advises growers to stay alert for these pests. Let your guard down and aphids or white fly populations could surge. To boost the beneficial insect population, Carlos released green lace wings in a number of fields.  We don’t want to see growers grappling with sticky cotton problems.

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