- Specialists Speaking -
Cotton Remains In The Mix
Farmers are still deciding on what crops to grow this year. Soybeans did really well in 2008 with a record statewide yield of 38 bushels per acre. One reason for this high yield was because of good rotations in cotton, peanuts or corn for many years without soybeans having been in the rotation. Most producers used fungicides since soybean rust was in all of the soybean-producing counties, which probably added three to five bushels per acre.
Cotton acreage was down by about 15 percent in 2008 but may not go down as anticipated for 2009. This is due to lack of contracts for peanuts and high fertilizer prices that drove some producers away from corn and the memory of the disaster in the eastern part of the panhandle on corn in 2008.
Cotton has been a good non-irrigated crop and does well if there are some decent rains in either July or August. Most producers in this part of the Deep South are peanut farmers, and it is widely known that soybeans will mess up that rotation and will lead to an eventual yield reduction to both peanuts and soybeans. Therefore, many of our producers will plant cotton to help either peanuts or soybeans in the rotation in future years.
Weather conditions in Mississippi this spring are beginning to remind me of weather conditions we faced in the spring of 2008. Last spring proved especially difficult for cotton as weather and soil conditions remained cool and wet well into May. As a result, nearly 50 percent of our crop was planted around the third week of May.
As we progress further into the planting season with the threat of inclement weather conditions, the effects of planting cotton during less-than-optimum conditions should be considered. Planting when conditions are cool and wet can have repercussions that will last for the remainder of the growing season. Seedlings that do not emerge uniformly can result in variability in growth for the remainder of the season, which makes uniform plant growth regulation difficult.
Less-than-optimum or skippy plant populations can result in delayed maturity and/or yield reductions. Skip lengths greater than two feet can significantly reduce cotton yields. Significant input costs and increasingly tight profit margins demand that cotton be planted in optimum conditions and be given every advantage for optimum growth and development throughout the growing season. Proper stand establishment and early season management are the keys for a productive crop.
As we approach planting, it’s hard to realize that Missouri had almost a half million acres of cotton several years ago. Now the USDA projection is at 300,000 acres, which is a two percent drop from last year. The loss of acreage to corn and soybeans doesn’t really affect cotton rotations very much in Missouri. The producers who grow watermelons in Missouri will rotate to cotton since it helps prevent disease in the melon crop. With the higher prices for the alternative crops, there is not much rotation going on although there are benefits from the rotation. If root-knot nematodes are a problem in cotton, there is growing evidence that corn will not reduce the nematode levels.
When we have had very windy days this spring, I have seen some blowing sand problems. While most of our producers use some form of conservation tillage and wheat planted in the middles, we have less potential for the type of a storm that occurred on Mother’s Day in the late 1980s. However, we have a few producers who still use conventional tillage with no cover. This cotton is very susceptible to sand injury after planting, which can delay maturity and decrease yields.
I have seen sulphur deficiency in our winter wheat this season based on soil tests, which indicates to me that cotton producers need to apply sulphur to their cotton on the very sandy soils. Any soil with a cation exchange capacity of 6.5 or less is vulnerable to loss of sulphur.
Cotton acreage reductions for Louisiana in 2009 will likely not be as large as predicted in January when the forecasts were for 80,000 to 100,000 fewer acres than in 2008. Most recent projections are for planted acreage of 240,000 acres, which would be 50,000 fewer acres than harvested in 2008 – still a substantial reduction.
Many factors are affecting final acreage numbers including economics, rotations and double cropping. Producers who recognize the benefits of cotton in rotations are opting to keep cotton in their mix of crops. One of the benefits of the lower acreage, if there can be one, is that yield potentials should be higher than in the past. This actually happened in 2008 when the Louisiana crop was exceptional but 50 percent of the yield was lost to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Higher yields are possible because less cotton will be planted on marginal lands, and each planted acre will be managed to the best possible extent with maximum attention to nutrient and pest management.
If the weather cooperates, especially avoiding the types of catastrophic weather events like we saw with the hurricanes in 2005 and 2008, we should see excellent yields for the 2009 crop. Also, because of wet, cold weather, virtually none of the 2009 crop was planted in late March and early April. In the past, late March and early April planted cotton was usually stressed by cold and wet conditions and had marginal stands that limited yield potential. This year there is an opportunity, weather permitting, to plant most of the cotton near the optimal dates centered around May 1.
Although wheat acreage in Louisiana is down somewhat from past years, we will have 260,000 acres of harvested wheat, mostly in the central and northeast part of the state. Wheat in Louisiana is harvested in mid-May, presenting an excellent opportunity for planting a summer double crop.
AgCenter research shows yield increases for cotton in wheat residue, mostly because of the water-conserving effects of the ground cover. Also, often overlooked is that wheat residue contains valuable plant nutrients (N, P, K, S, Ca, Mg, etc.) worth more than $100 per acre. Burning the residue will result in the loss of 40 to 80 percent of these nutrients.
Management of reniform and root-knot nematodes was identified by Alabama farmers as being the No. 1 problem for them just a few years ago. Early season damage by these nematodes was severely stunting cotton growth in many Alabama fields, and control was erratic. Currently, with more acreage being rotated to corn, wheat and soybeans, this has resulted in very little cotton following cotton now being planted.
These rotations have greatly diminished the cotton nematode problem in Alabama and may be one of the reasons for the record high cotton yields in 2008. The grain crops are also benefiting from the cotton being in the rotation by reducing the disease and insect pressures that can result in continuous productions of grains. We learned in the early 1980s in Alabama how important it is to keep cotton in the crop rotation. Most producers understand this and want to plant cotton if the economics will let them.
Weather patterns during the 2009 SJV planting season in California have produced somewhat of a split planting season. We have earlier (March/early April) plantings during earlier warm weather that are moving along fairly well, followed by a gap of a couple of weeks or more with few plantings during colder, windy weather, now followed by warm conditions and later plantings after mid-April.
This set-up to the growing season makes decisions on timing of first post-planting irrigation more difficult. Even if you are furrow or flood irrigating and trying to eliminate one or more full irrigations during the season, it will be important to remember that as long as plants have a fairly decent root system, the growth stages where moderate-to-severe stress will most impact yield and quality is mid-squaring through about a week or so after peak bloom. Stress is more tolerable later in the season as long as fruit set is decent in the mid- and lower canopy.
If you have had good results in the past with eyeball evaluations or calendar timing for first irrigation timing, this may be the year when you need to again consider some use of soil monitoring (even just a shovel in the root zone) or closer plant monitoring (pressure bomb, plant internode growth rates) to assist with irrigation timing decisions.
From a drought to a flood. We usually say we are never more than three days away from a drought on our south Georgia sandy soils, but in the last month it seems like we are never more than three days away from a flood! Two major rainstorms during the last week of March and the first week of April dumped somewhere between 10 and 15 inches of rain on most of the south Georgia Cotton Belt.
Some areas received up to 20 inches, and there was significant soil erosion, especially on conventionally-tilled fields that had been harrowed. Luckily, most cotton land had not been fertilized and bedded, so unlike with corn, these operations did not have to be repeated. This will compress the time we have for fertilizing and land preparation and likely delay cotton planting, depending on how much rain we get in May.
May is usually one of our drier months and hopefully planting will not be delayed by more than two weeks or so. Again, we usually say we are never more than three days from a drought. So it might sound crazy to suggest irrigating soon after planting this year. However, one of our best defenses against the dreaded glyphosate-resistant pigweed is residual herbicides at planting. And since most of these herbicides require rain or irrigation for activation, if it doesn’t rain, they need to be irrigated. In fact, I’ve heard it said that this might be the most important irrigation decision you make all year.
The period between planting and first square (First Forty Days) is a critical time for the cotton plant. Pest management – especially early season thrips and weed control – is crucial to keep the seedling cotton plant on track. Cool and/or cool wet weather will slow growth of young cotton plants, allowing thrips and seedling diseases the opportunity to cause damage, reduce stand and delay maturity.
Most producers in Arkansas protect seedlings from early season insect pressure through an insecticide applied in-furrow or as a seed treatment. Extended periods of cool weather may decrease effectiveness of these treatments over time. Therefore, fields should be monitored for insect pests and seedling diseases during periods where cotton is not growing off. Weed management is just as important as insect control early. Cotton is not very competitive, therefore low populations of weeds could potentially reduce yield and cause delays in maturity.
An effective weed control plan utilizing residual herbicides early will provide fields with the best start possible. Cotton in Arkansas should reach square in 35 to 45 days, depending on planting date. Any interference with weed, disease or insect pests will delay the period between squaring and ultimately delay maturity.
It has been a difficult year to predict row crop acreage in Alabama this season. We began the year with predicted cotton acreage at 193,000 but now have a revised estimate of 280,000. The difficulty this year stems from the volatility of the grain and soybean markets, lack of peanut contracts and heavy rainfall during the normal corn planting window. While cotton acreage may fluctuate this year, the opportunity for crop rotation has been positive for many areas of the state.
Two primary considerations that are driving our need to rotate include the influx of peanuts into central and southwestern Alabama counties and a severe nematode complex that is difficult to manage with chemicals alone. In central and southwestern counties where a new peanut community has developed, some producers are in desperate need to rotate to manage troublesome diseases that will almost certainly come with continuous production.
An approach that a producer friend of mine mentioned was that he would grow cotton this year where his price floor was already set. Since both crops appear to have a fairly low profit potential in 2009, he will rotate out of peanuts so that he can then take advantage of a stronger price next season if that should come.
Most of the producers with whom I have visited this past winter were still trying to decide what their crop mix would be as late as early April. Those persons interested in complete Alabama row crop information are encouraged to visit our Web site at: www.alabamacrops.com.