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Keeping Cotton King Of The High Plains

By Mark Kelley
Lubbock Texas

When I look back over the years since I first moved to Lubbock to begin my career with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service working in cotton, several things are clear with regards to cotton production in the Texas High Plains and Panhandle regions. Producers in the region are highly progressive and always looking for and trying new technologies and varieties that enable them to continue to produce high yields of excellent quality cotton. Also, their faith in God is unwavering as proven by their resolve even when faced with less than favorable growing conditions in an ever-changing environment.

As I have heard, and have repeated several times myself, “if you don’t like the weather in Lubbock, just wait a minute, it will change.” As we have witnessed over the years, each growing season is different with its own set of “challenges” that producers must overcome in order to have a successful cotton harvest. More recently, Texas High Plains and Panhandle producers have dealt with extreme drought conditions that have, just this winter, shown significant signs of improvement.

king of high plainsIn addition to the drought, we have experienced late spring freeze and storm events that have delayed development of the crop, early fall freeze events that abruptly halt fiber development and boll opening, and in-season inclement weather that has wiped out entire cotton crops. In spite of these obstacles, producers in the region continue to adapt and, in many cases, produce greater than expected yields of excellent quality cotton. One of the many things that has enabled producers to be successful is their understanding that pre-plant, at-planting and early season management decisions are extremely important. Pre-plant decisions include, but are not limited to, field preparation, irrigation management, weed control measures, variety selection and seed quality. At-planting considerations include additional weed control, seed placement, seeding rate, as well as time of planting. Finally, early season management of a cotton crop is critical for success, and decisions made for early season insect control, irrigation timing and continued weed control should be made in a timely manner.

When making pre-plant decisions, producers should consider options for fields on an individual basis. Field preparations are generally based on tillage operations. Although an important decision, whether to pre-water, is most often based upon precipitation amounts and timing. In some cases, irrigation is needed for stand establishment where sub-soil moisture levels are adequate. Other times, especially under drought conditions, irrigation is started early in the year and continues up to planting in order to “fill” the soil profile as well as provide seed-bed moisture for planting and emergence.

Even if all management decisions are made correctly, choosing the wrong variety can result in lower yields and quality than anticipated. Variety selection should also be made on a field-by-field basis, taking into consideration irrigation, soil type, presence of disease pathogens or rootknot nematodes and length of growing season.

The fact that there are more than 100 commercially available varieties is both good and bad. Good in that there is competition among all seed companies for market share, and bad because the sheer numbers make the decisions more difficult. To assist producers with these variety decisions, several replicated large and small plot variety trials are conducted annually by Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension personnel. Once variety decisions are made and planting begins, producers should have some idea of the quality of seed.

Plant seed to a firm, moist seed bed if possible when the seed-bed temperatures are more than 60 degrees and a good five-day forecast is expected. Once established, keeping the field free of insects and weeds will help insure a successful harvest of good quality cotton by getting the crop off to a good start and setting a high percentage of early season fruit. If producers continue to manage their cotton crops as they have in the High Plains and Panhandle regions of Texas, and maintain their faith, we can be assured that cotton will continue to be king.

Contact Mark Kelley in Lubbock, Texas, at (806) 746-6101 or mkelley@ag.tamu.edu.