High Cotton winner values innovation

The San Joaquin Valley's agricultural history will forever be linked to the vision and tenacity of German immigrant Henry Miller and his partner Charles Lux.

Miller & Lux amassed vast land holdings and ran millions of head of cattle from the late 1880s into early 1900s. Henry Miller also developed water for farming and towns and banks for people as an early-day pioneer leading to what today is one of the most productive agricultural valleys on the planet.

San Juan Ranching Co., Dos Palos, Calif., was part of the Miller & Lux empire. It continues to be part of the ever evolving agriculture history of the valley as an innovative operation that was an early adapter of narrow-row, 30-inch cotton and today is at center stage of what could be another yield plateau breakthrough, California Ultra-Narrow-Row cotton.

The man directing San Juan is Daniel Burns who literally grew up on the ranch before taking over as manager of the diversified 5,000-acre farming operation in 1991. San Juan is owned by Miller heirs, the Nickel Family of Bakersfield, Calif. Daniel's father Sherman worked at San Juan and the younger Burns hoed cotton, scouted fields and drove tractors during high school and college. He became one of the ranch's foremen at 21 fresh from California State University, Chico.

Burns out-front approach to farming has earned him this year's Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton award for the Far West.

Nominated by veteran Merced County, Calif., University of California Farm Advisor Bill Weir, Burns' efforts epitomize the ever-daunting challenge of increasing yields and cutting costs farmers everywhere are facing.

Burns' approach to farming is like the pioneering Miller's, going where others have not, taking advantage of every opportunity to squeeze a profit out of the land while preserving it.

That led Burns to work with Weir in trying to adapt Ultra-Narrow-Row (UNR) cotton to California's high yielding cotton production system.

Burns' goal was simply: increase yields and cut costs.

And, he has achieved that over the past four years with average yield increases of about 8 percent and cost reductions of $50 per acre with California UNR.

However, Burns believes that could be only the beginning. He believes five-bale cotton may be an achievable average yield with improved growing techniques like UNR and the new varieties on the horizon.

Pie in the sky?

Burns only has to point to the late 1970s and 1980s when 30-inch cotton first came into the valley as an example of how yields can take dramatic jumps with technological breakthroughs. It boosted yields at San Juan almost a bale immediately.

Burns was a foreman then at San Juan and remembered the day well when former manager Mike Stearns ordered a late-planted field bedded up into 30-inch rows.

“It rained all spring. We were very late getting planted. People were starting to try 30-inch cotton near us. So, we listed up 30-inch beds on April 25 and planted narrow-row cotton — and did not even have a way to harvest it,” he recalled.

San Juan converted a two-row picker to a straddle row 30-inch harvester and harvested 2.6 bales per acre.

“We had never harvested more than two bales off of that field where we first tried narrow-row. It was real marginal ground. What made it even more remarkable was that it was the more vigorous, older variety SJ-2 before we had Pix and we had never grown 30-inch cotton before,” he said.

San Juan never looked back and within 10 years was 100 percent narrow-row.

It was that driving need to increase production in some of the toughest economic times for cotton that led Burns and Weir to hook up on “California” UNR. It gets its California moniker because it is grown and harvested differently than the UNR typically grown across the U.S. Cotton Belt.

It is planted two rows, seven inches apart on 30-inch center beds rather than on 10-inch rows planted flat. It is cultivated only once, primarily for irrigation efficiency.

When Weir and Burns planted that initial trial, they had planned to harvest it with a stripper like conventional UNR is harvested.

“We went to look at the stripper we were supposed to use and I said this won't work,” said Burns. “I told Bill we had to harvest it with a spindle picker and that is what we did — two rows through one head. I was amazed.”

What was even more amazing was that there was no additional trash.

“Even though we were spindle picking it, I thought we might get more trash. I did not tell my ginner that it was two-rows through one head. When I told him what we had done, he was surprised because he could not tell any difference in the trash content,” said Burns. “And, there was no difference in lint quality,” he added.

Burns is convinced that had the stripper been used that first year, the UNR experiment would be over by now.

There is an anti-stripper bias in California from the late 1970s when several researchers and growers tried them in what was then called stripper cotton, basically the same concept as today's UNR. The trash content almost sent ginners rioting and the effort to grow cotton closer than 38 to 40 inches was largely abandoned until the straddle-row two-row harvester was developed to pick 30-inch cotton. Narrow-row cotton was solidified when the two major picker manufacturers introduced four row machines pickers for narrow-row cotton.

Last year Burns' and Weir's California UNR efforts took another quantum leap when he used a precision vacuum planter to seed the twin-row beds on 500 acres of California UNR at San Juan. The Monosem NG Plus planter replaced a shop-built tool bar planter using old offset John Deere 71 planter units.

Burns said the lack of precision with the old planter units made it impossible to achieve ideal seed placement like the 3.5-inch spacing possible with the Monosem planter.

“We had many more productive plants down the seed row this year. When you crowd two plants, one becomes non-productive,” said Burns, who plans to double his California UNR to 1,000 acres this season.

And the trials conducted by Weir proved the value of the planter.

“We achieved a 15 percent yield increase in 2001 over conventional single row 30-inch cotton,” said Weir. California UNR yielded almost 1,850 pounds of lint per acre vs. 1,550 for conventional single row.

Burns used the new planter to seed 500 acres of double-row cotton last season and he is already getting calls from farmers who want him to return this coming season. “However, I am not sure how much I can get in. We are going to 10 rows next season and most of the outside acreage is eight rows,” he said. “A lot of what we get planted and what I plant for others will depend on the weather.”

He is convinced he is on the right track to that five-bale cotton plateau and with an earlier maturity. Burns' UNR was seven to 10 days earlier than his conventional one-row per bed cotton.

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