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.

Burns only has to point to the late 1970s and 80s 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 a 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 70s 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.

“Tom Kerby used to talk about cotton's six- to seven-bale yield potential. I think if we get the right plant population — that looks to be about 60,000 to 75,000 plants per acre — and the right fertilizer combination that five-bale potential is there and with less cost.”

He says a look back 20 years makes that seem more realistic. “Who would have thought we'd be at that four-bale level today when in the early 80s two bales was a good yield,” he said.

He credits this giant leap largely to the variety breeding efforts of California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors and Delta and Pine Land Co.

Biotechnology is another tool that is making it realistic. All of Burns' California UNR is Roundup Ready. “I would not have even attempted it without Roundup Ready cotton (Riata RR). We grow processing tomatoes and planting minimum till cotton after tomatoes would have been impossible without Roundup Ready cotton because of the nightshade,” he said.

Biotechnology is the future of cotton, said Burns. “I think growers now understand it is needed and it is the right time to adapt the technology,” he said.

While Burns is convinced California UNR is one way out of the current economic malaise cotton is in, he cites other things he does to reduce costs and still log the 3.2-bale average he currently has.

For one he uses independent pest control advisors Bob Vandenberg of Dos Palos and Sara Saravy of Crop Care Associates.

“We bid out all our chemicals and fertilizers to the lowest bidder and we use our own ground rig to spray,” he said. Ninety percent of San Juan's pesticide applications are ground applied. A decade ago that would have been 90 percent by air.

“We are much more safety conscious today because of the crops we grow where people are in the fields — like melons and tomatoes,” he said. “You don't want to spray anywhere near fields where people are working.”

California's pesticide laws are the toughest in the nation, yet Burns does not believe they hinder his ability to farm. He says they are helpful.

“Now that I have worked with them for a while, I think they are a great deal for record keeping. I can keep track with my computer of everything I use and that is very important in managing resistance. If I use a material this year I may want to rotate to something else next year.”

There is more paperwork involved in California in gaining approval for pesticide use, but Burns believes overall the laws benefit everyone.

“The only time I can remember that they inhibited me was when I filed a notice of intent to use a product near a river. The county ag commissioner turned me down because of what I wanted to use,” he said. “He was right in trying to protect the waterway.”

Weir said Burns is also environmentally sensitive in his farming by rotating cotton with tomatoes and using residual nitrogen from the tomatoes for cotton. This, said Weir, not only reduces costs, but increases yields and prevents groundwater contamination.

hcline@primediabusiness.com