A healthy start for a young cotton plant is “one of the most pressurized situations a farmer faces all year.” You will hear Extension specialists, consultants and agronomists consistently repeat that phrase before the crop is planted – and for good reason.
The financial investment in seed technology is significant, and there simply isn’t any room for mistakes.
Even though the farmer has no control over the weather, he has to do everything possible to give the young seedling a chance to thrive in those first few days and weeks.
If the seedling doesn’t survive, the next option is to replant, and that can sometimes affect profitability, yield and ultimately fiber quality. A lot is at stake as the cotton plant tries to emerge from the soil.
The planting window varies for each region of the Belt. But, as Missouri Extension research associate Andrea Jones points out, unexpected warm weather will tempt producers to plant earlier.
“Here in the Missouri Bootheel, our research has shown that May 10 is the optimum planting date,” she says. “That means a farmer shouldn’t even be thinking about planting until May 1.
“It’s a big gamble to plant early because we always have that blackberry winter cold snap. It’s tempting when we have those warm days in April, but it’s still a big risk.”
Don’t Plant Too Early
Jones says warm days in April also don’t equate to warm soil temperatures. She says that is the big overriding factor when a producer is trying to decide when to plant.
“The danger is when you have a hard rain after planting too early,” she says. “The soil will crust over, and the plant won’t even make it out of the ground.”
Another major concern for young cotton is seedling disease such as Rhizoctonia. Jones says her producers always opt for treated seed rather than applying any in-furrow fungicides.
“It’s definitely a waiting game after a producer plants,” she says. “And there are always questions. Did I plant too shallow? Did I plant toodeep? What if we get a rain? It’s pretty nervewracking.”
An additional key to seedling health, according to Jones, is soil sampling to evaluate nutrient levels. This is essential for proper plant development. One of Jones’ pet projects that has proven successful is a one-time fertilizer trip using slow nitrogen release around June 1. Thirty pounds of urea is mixed with 60 to 90 pounds of the slow release.
The 30 pounds of urea is an instant start of N with the 60 to 90 pounds slow release N releasing for the remainder of the season.
Start With Clean Fields
Jones recommends that her producers put out pre-plant herbicides about 30 days ahead of planting. She also uses a Valor application to ensure a clean field to help control resistant pigweed outbreaks.
“If you use Valor as a residual, you need to have a half inch of rain to activate it, and we have received that here in Missouri,” she says.
Jones knows that her recommendations won’t apply to other regions as they prepare for planting. But she does believe there are common principles to follow.
For example, ideal planting days are those that have warm soil temperatures with plenty of subsoil moisture. However, windy conditions can dry out the soil in a hurry, she says.
“In a perfect scenario, it would also be great to have the occasional half-inch rain to help maintain that soil moisture until we can get the plant up and running,” she says.
Seedling Health In Southeast
The needs for young seedlings in Georgia are somewhat different from what you’ll find in the Missouri Bootheel. Glen Harris, associate professor and Extension agronomist at the University of Georgia, says correct phosphorus and nitrogen levels are needed for proper cotton development in his state.
He also recommends a good potash application at the same time.
“I don’t think we can emphasize seedling health enough,” says Harris. “Everybody knows that the front-end investment for producers is very heavy. Phosphorus is important for early season root growth, and there are a number of reasons why it’s crucial to have good pH and fertility early in the season.”
What occasionally worries Harris is when producers wait until they get a stand and don’t put out any fertilizer until the crop is up. He says such a delay isn’t necessarily bad if the plant progresses normally to the third-, fourth- or fifth-leaf stage.
Unexpected factors, however, can make such a delay somewhat risky. Harris says seedling health is challenged when there is a lack of Temik or if cold weather, low pH levels and thrips become a problem.
Georgia producers are also calling Harris to get advice on how cotton will fare on land that hasn’t been in
“A lot of this land is following grass crops, and there is the possibility that the land wasn’t managed very well,” says Harris. “This is a bit scary to me. I wouldn’t think any producer would want to go into a field blind and not know the soil profile. You’d be surprised at how many times this happens. Like I said, I’m concerned about this.
“I think I’ll be going on more troubleshooting calls this year than ever before.”
Drought Problems In Texas
Weather conditions this year in the Belt’s largest cotton production state will certainly pose challenges for seedlings. But, according to Texas AgriLife Research plant pathologist Terry Wheeler, the concern this spring is centered on nematode populations.
Whenever drought conditions persist in this region, it’s the nematodes that do the most damage on young cotton plants.
The good news, according to Wheeler, is that most of the seed companies have excellent seedling disease treatment packages for these problems.
“This wasn’t necessarily the case a few years ago,” says Wheeler. “True, the front-end investment in seed is significant, but there are nice packages in those seed treatments to deal with seedling disease. We have our hands full with the dry conditions and wildfires. But we’ve still got time to get the necessary soil moisture and get the crop started off right.”
Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or firstname.lastname@example.org.