Planting new cotton varieties – whether Pima or Acala – can make a grower a bit anxious. Such was the case with Firebaugh grower Sean Howard, who planted two new PhytoGen® brand varieties in 2016. When he got a call during harvest from his gin manager, he didn’t know what to expect. “She said I had a real problem with my grades, which nearly stopped my heart,” Howard said. “She also has a sense of humor. She admitted that she was pulling my leg, and the grades were wonderful and the production was through the roof.”

That was a satisfying ending to a year when Howard was basically “all in” with new varieties. In fact, over 90% of his 400 acres was planted to varieties that had never been on the farm before. They included PhytoGen® brand PHY 841 RF Pima (250 acres) and PhytoGen brand PHY 764 WRF Acala.

5-Day Degree Day Forecast

Howard’s original plan was to plant PHY 841 RF Pima on all his acreage. Then Mother Nature stepped in. “We had some rain in April that shut us down for a bit,” he said. “When my ground gets wet, I can’t even drive the roads. It can be miserable.” His situation was confirmed by the 5-day degree day forecast for the Fresno area in spring, 2016. April turned out to be a degree day roller coaster. The University of California considers a degree day forecast above 20 as “ideal”. On April 3, the degree day forecast was 49. A week later it was 17. Another week later is was back up to 51. Another week later it dropped to 17 again.

Howard closely follows those degree day forecasts on his iPad. “That forecast is the Bible,” he said. “I also carry a thermometer that I use for ground temperatures.” The rain and the drop in the degree day forecast was enough to cause Howard to switch his final 150 acres from Pima to Acala. “I didn’t want to risk harvesting Pima late into the fall,” Howard said. “As it turned out, I could’ve planted all Pima and been fine in the fall. But there have been years when it rains in late October, and my ground wouldn’t allow me back in. That can ruin a harvest, but just as importantly, it doesn’t allow me to work the ground perfectly for the following season.” Once consistently warm temperatures appeared in 2016, the PHY 841 RF Pima “jumped out of the ground,” Howard said.

Sean Howard (left) and PCA Barry Malm

Drip Irrigation

All of Howard’s Pima acreage is drip irrigated, something he began four years ago as the drought made water availability difficult. “There are pros and cons to drip irrigation,” he said. “Overall, drip makes it really easy to irrigate and to apply fertilizers to the cotton. We can even apply some insecticides through drip lines. The biggest downside, however, is fixing leaks.”

“One thing I learned the first year I had drip was that you have to stay way ahead of the plant with your water because the plants do not take it up as quickly as with flood,” he said. “When you flood irrigate, you have a two- or three-week period where the plants have more than enough water, then near the end of that period, the soil starts to dry out and you have to be ready to put water back in the furrow. With drip, you don’t have the luxury of a long interval. We apply water about every third day.

Regulating Plant Growth

Plant growth on Acalas is often managed by plant growth regulators (e.g. Pix), while Pima growth is often managed by irrigation practices. Howard uses Pix on his entire acreage, regardless of variety. “Drip irrigation changes the industry norms,” he said. “I don’t want to stress the Pima at all, but at the same time, I don’t want plants to get away from me. Those are competing concepts. So, we drip irrigate in a way that does not cause plant stress, then we use Pix to control plant growth. No matter what anybody says, Pix works very well on Pima.”

2016 Results

The way harvest turned out, the PHY 764 WRF Acala field – planted two weeks later than the PHY 841 RF Pima – was harvested at the same time as the Pima. “That’s an advantage of the Acalas – it’s a valuable option when planting is delayed,” Howard said. A yield of 4.7 bales per acre was also a surprise. “I have always maintained that I cannot look at a crop and tell you what the yield will be,” he said

In 2017, Pima varieties will be Howard’s first choice for his fields. “Between the higher prices for Pima and yields that can now reach 4 bales per acre, Pima becomes a pretty easy choice.”