Specialists Speaking - April 2009
It’s Time For Planters To Start Rolling
The Deep South has been below normal in rainfall throughout the late fall and winter. Therefore, cover crops and weed canopies should be killed out ahead of planting and residual herbicides applied so that new weeds will not use surface moisture that will be needed for germination and early growth of the cotton.
Uniform and early stands of cotton make weed control and fertility decisions easier and timelier and may ultimately result in fewer inputs and higher yields. There are no dominant varieties of cotton with BGII and Roundup Ready Flex technology that are poised to take over the market but several have yielded well and have good fiber quality.
We will see many new varieties tried along with DPL 555 to determine how they perform as compared to this variety. RF will allow later applications of glyphosate. However, residual herbicides should be applied either at planting or layby or both to prevent weed resistance and allow lower use rates. There is enough data from cotton-growing states to show that weeds can be controlled as effectively in conservation tillage systems as in conventional tillage systems. Consult county Extension faculty in your area for the most effective weed control option.
Our job as university faculty is to learn how to produce crops using techniques such as conservation tillage and other value-added practices to aid cotton producers to stay in business even when prices are low. We appreciate the challenge of problems and the support of U.S. cotton producers.
As we head toward planting time, and final decisions regarding crop selection are being made, there appears to be more optimism around cotton. Although cotton prices are not where we would like them to be, grain prices have declined to the point that cotton is at least being considered as a part of the crop mix. Although we will reduce acres again in 2009, the reduction will probably not be as dramatic as we thought a couple of months ago.
The focus of this issue of Cotton Farming is decision making in regard to planting. Our general recommendation is to begin planting when soil temperatures reach 68 degrees and the five-day forecast is for warm weather. Planting cotton when soil temperatures are less than ideal, especially if the soils are wet, can be detrimental to root and seedling development. Cotton does not emerge and develop with the enthusiasm of corn or soybeans and needs to be given every advantage possible for a healthy start to life.
In addition to the detrimental effect on root and seedling development, stressed seedlings are more susceptible to seedling disease. Although nearly all seed is treated with some combination of a fungicide, insecticide and/or nematicide seed treatment, the use of these seed treatments should not encourage you to roll the dice and plant in less-than-optimum conditions. A poor start to the year will likely put you behind for the remainder of the season; however, a good start will set you up for success in the fall.
The Missouri Cotton Production and Outlook Conference was conducted at the UMC-Delta Center this year due to the ice storm. It was a good meeting with emphasis on plant bugs, irrigation and cotton varieties.
Plant bugs are more of a problem because producers are no longer spraying for boll weevils. Monitoring of plant bugs is very important because they can delay maturity and cause yield loss. There is also more resistance to the standard insecticides. Research has shown that cotton grown near corn needs careful monitoring. Plant bugs are much more of a problem near the border rows next to the corn. The borders should be monitored and treated if necessary.
Irrigation is more important than ever because it produces consistency. Irrigation pays for cotton production, and producers should check on the cheapest energy source. Currently, electricity is cheaper than diesel or natural gas. Surveys show advantages for irrigation, and the key is scheduling. Irrigation can pay even in a wet year if producers will irrigate during the dry periods.
There is more competition among seed companies, and current varieties have higher yield stability. One drawback for producers is that varieties are not in university testing for as long, which means there is less data. Seedling vigor, growth and development profiles, maturity and fiber quality traits are characteristics that producers should consider. I am a proponent of on-farm variety testing so producers can see how the variety grows in comparison with their standard varieties.
As we approach planting time for cotton, it is important to recognize that planting date is a primary factor in maximizing stand establishment and yields. Cotton can be planted too early, which increases risk of stand failure or can be planted too late, which increases risk of yield reductions and the cost of insect control.
Cotton can be planted earlier than in the past when the recommended planting dates began around May 1, probably because the Deep South is warming earlier in the spring due to climate change. Recent research in Louisiana showed that the optimal planting window extends from mid-April through early May. Success with early to mid-April dates, however, was more variable than with planting dates in early May.
Success with early planting dates depends greatly on the weather, and producers have to remember that when planting in April, the weather forecast is of critical importance. Seedling emergence may be slow, and the forecast must be for continued warm temperatures with no cold fronts that will lower soil and air temperatures and bring rainfall before seedlings emerge.
Planting conditions can go from ideal to very poor in one day, and often do. There is very little advantage to planting earlier than mid-April. Cotton planted on April 5 typically requires 105 days to reach cutout, and cotton planted on April 25 reaches cutout in 88 days, so the late-April planted cotton will reach cutout at the same time as the early April cotton.
Beginning with mid-May plantings, yield potential has already begun to decline and then declines more steeply with further delay. For late plantings, the latter part of the boll-fill period is affected by the much shorter days (less sunlight interception) and fewer heat units of late summer, and may also be affected by increased insect infestations and tropical systems.
Low cotton prices have cotton farmers again searching for ways to reduce production costs on an acre of cotton. Many Alabama farmers are now planting only about half the amount of cottonseed per acre they did just 10 years ago. Recently, I have received several calls about changing cotton row spacing from solid planting to a skip-row pattern. In this way, farmers could stretch the costs of a bag of cottonseed over more acres of land. In northern Alabama, planting two rows and skipping one (2 x 1 skip) was the predominate row pattern in the early 1980s. Research at that time indicated that farmers with 2 x 1 skip cotton could expect to harvest, over an acre of land, about 90 to 95 percent of the yields of solid planted cotton.
Limits in available irrigation water are the biggest advance threat for many crops grown in the San Joaquin Valley, including cotton, as we start the 2009 growing season. In addition, the prevailing prices and economic factors for other agronomic crops in the SJV have adjusted quite a bit within the past few months. Plus, cotton is relatively drought and salt tolerant and able to continue to grow and produce well even while subjected to some water limitations or salt accumulations. Together, these factors mean that cotton has a likely fit in a number of production areas this year.
With this in mind, it is worth deciding right up front what you think will be the prevailing conditions where you want to grow cotton. Will cotton be the dominant crop in the area or a minor crop in the mix? Are neighboring crops likely to contribute significantly to pest pressures enough to make cotton a difficult crop choice or to demand more aggressive pest control practices early season or during fruiting in your cotton? Do you expect that pest or production cost issues mean that a moderate yield goal is your target, and will that yield range cover production costs and give profit potential?
Do you expect that a shorter production season may be a goal to pursue in order to eliminate one or more irrigations and reduce total water use? Will you plant cotton on some of your weaker ground where yields might be more moderate, or will it be on good ground with a history of high yields and high input requirements? Are there plant disease issues (verticillium, fusarium, etc.) that impact the right choice for a variety, and do you know where to get that type of information? This broad selection of conditions should be part of your assessment when making cotton variety choices for fields this year.
Review varietal performance at http://cottoninfo.ucdavis.edu from recent years in those parts of the SJV that most closely match your fields and talk with your seed company rep about earliness, ease of defoliation and other characteristics that might help out this year and try at least some mix of varieties this year for your own tests.
Planting decisions. There are so many of them. Tillage, seeding rate, what varieties to put where, seed treatments, in-furrow insecticide/nematicides, weed control, preplant fertilizer…the list goes on and on. But, there is nothing like putting seed in the ground and starting a new year. Unfortunately, as of mid-March, we were already behind in soil moisture for most of the cotton-growing region in south Georgia.
There are still questions on holding off on buying starter fertilizer and potash until the last minute (right before planting) in hopes that they will also come down in price. Also on the positive side, fuel prices are reasonable right now. Contrary to some early planting intention estimates, Georgia cotton producers will likely maintain last year’s acreage and possibly increase it slightly. Why not? In fact, nothing proves that a farmer is the eternal optimist better than when he puts the seed in the ground.
I have no idea what cotton prices will do, but realistically we need to approach this crop as one in which we will need to be very judicious with inputs and costs. This is one of those years where we need to concentrate on the basics and not “experiment” with inputs. There are a lot of things out there for a cotton producer to spend money on. A general rule of thumb is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
One of the things that I would be particularly cautious about is products that say they allow you to use lower rates of other inputs. Rates for inputs are carefully considered. Using lower rates of pesticides can lead to reduced pest control and increase the chances of resistance occurring. Some products claim to allow lower rates of fertilizer. Most fertilizer recommendations include a “replacement” value. This is included so that you are not mining your soils. Can you possibly get by with reduced fertilizer? Yes, especially nutrients other than nitrogen in fields that do not test low. If you decide to do this though, you need to realize you are mining your soils and that we know of no magic that will allow you to do this without mining your soils.
Glyphosate-resistant pigweed (Palmer amaranth) infested acres are on the rise in many cotton-producing counties of Arkansas. The concern has risen high enough that producers are changing weed management strategies and are considering the multiple use of residuals either pre-plant or preemergence as well as early post and layby to prevent emergence of resistant pigweed in their fields.
As we move into planting season, it is becoming more important to have a weed management plan in place before the first seed is planted.
Recognize the current and potential problems in and around your farm and be proactive in a weed management plan before planting.