Managing For Earliness: Strategy Works In Mississippi

By Tommy Horton

The idea of planting a cotton crop early sounds so logical and simple to implement. Why wouldn’t any producer be willing to plant the seed earlier, avoid additional insect and weed pests, lower input costs – and wind up with increased yields and profits?

As any experienced farmer can attest, different environments across the Cotton Belt require different strategies. What works in California’s San Joaquin Valley might not work in south Georgia.

However, the basic concept of managing a crop for earliness is an approach to cotton production that can’t be ignored. If conditions are favorable, this practice can work.

As weather trends continue to produce warmer temperatures throughout the year, it makes sense to implement such a philosophy for maximizing profit potential.

Sometimes it’s hard to try a new production practice because it goes against conventional thinking. Even the most open-minded farmer can find it difficult to abandon a familiar strategy. If a farmer clings to the traditional mid-April to mid-May planting window, he might find it difficult to venture from his comfort zone.

Gamble Pays Off

For those who have taken the gamble to plant early, the results can be remarkable.

Mississippi Delta producer Justin Cariker is an excellent example of someone who is now a believer in earliness for a cotton crop.

Cariker farms nearly 5,000 acres outside Tunica, just 50 miles south of Memphis. Last year, that broke down as follows:

• Cotton – 2,000 acres
• Corn – 1,000 acres
• Rice – 500 acres
• Soybeans – 1,500 acres

For several years, he would occasionally plant a crop early. But it wasn’t until recently that he gained a better appreciation for a year-long strategy for earliness.

His farm manager, Tommy Walker, convinced him that 2012 would be the perfect year to plant some cotton in late March in an attempt to gain an early harvest. As it turns out, the conditions couldn’t have been better for all of Cariker’s crops. Weather conditions provided a warm winter and spring as well as record heat so far this summer.

All of the early planted cotton is on dryland acreage, which presents some major challenges when serious droughts occur.

Cariker’s early planted cotton started growing just five days after it was planted. Two ounces of Pix were applied as soon as the plant started squaring, followed by four more ounces of Pix.

“We found the first bloom on June 3, and it’s very possible that there was a bloom out there in the early cotton several days before that date,” says Cariker.

“To my knowledge, this might be the earliest cotton bloom that has ever been found in Mississippi. I called Darrin Dodds (state Exten-sion cotton specialist), and he agreed that it probably was.”

PGR Management

The first phase of managing for earliness, according to Cariker, occurs when timely plant growth regulators are applied. This helps set the fruit early on the plant.

Effective PGR management also helps create a better environment for defoliation later in the season because it keeps the plant at an ideal height.

“I like for every acre of my cotton to be waist high,” says Cariker. “That’s big enough for the plant. You don’t need a plant that is chest high.”

Another important tool is having a seed variety that performs well early in the season. The Cariker farm’s early cotton acreage was planted to PHY 375 WRF, but he says many varieties are capable of yielding well in a short season. For example, Cariker and his farm manager had similar results with DP 0912 B2RF in 2011, so there are numerous options for finding an early maturing environment.

Because the plant is out of the ground and squaring several weeks ahead of schedule, experts believe it is possible to avoid early season insect and weed pressure. Cariker even thinks the crop can “outrun” a serious drought by being further along in plant development.

Even with a few cold snaps earlier this spring, the early planted cotton was able to rebound because the plant had already established a good stand.

“A long time ago, I thought earliness meant jumping out there fast and simply planting the crop as early as possible,” says Cariker.

“Now earliness means a whole season-long process. It doesn’t mean the first farmer to plant cotton. When the plant comes out of the ground, that’s when your earliness program really gets started.”

On-Board Harvesting

Could there be another reason for planting early? In the case of Cariker’s farm, it is a perfect fit for his new John Deere on-board moduling harvester. By planting early, there is a need to be ready for harvest.

The round module harvest system is a nice complement with Cariker’s early cotton crop development.

“It’s a good combination,” says the Delta producer. “By harvesting early with this on-board system, we can go ahead and be using our other equipment in land preparation for next year’s crop.”

Tommy Walker, Cariker’s farm manager, has been a proponent of early cotton for several years, beginning when he worked for Delta producer/ginner Brad Cobb. This is his first year with Cariker, and it didn’t take long to convince his new boss that it would be worth the gamble to plant some early dryland cotton.

“I think we’re seeing both older and younger farmers being receptive to the idea of early cotton,” says Walker. “There are so many problems you can avoid, such as pigweed and early season insects. And you’re more likely to get a timely rain early in the season as opposed to the summer.”

Benefits Of Planting Early

Walker is a strong believer in plant-ing cotton early, and he makes no apologies for being that way. It’s a question of making sure all contributing factors make sense before reaching the decision to plant.

One of those crucial factors involved implementing a conventional tillage system. He built up the rows so that the ground would warm up quicker. Then he applied Starter fertilizer followed by an application of Reflex.

As for projected yields on this early cotton, Walker believes that another rain could increase yields to nearly 1,100 pounds per acre. If the acreage doesn’t receive any rain, the yields will be closer to 800 pounds.

Cariker is convinced that planting cotton early and managing for earliness are two practices that he’ll continue to embrace.

Sometimes it’s a gamble, but when the percentages look promising, he sees no reason to shy away from this approach.

“I just think we need to get out of the mindset that the only time we can plant cotton is between late April and May 10,” he says. “We need to start paying attention to the weather. When it’s time to plant, we need to be ready to go.”

Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or

Cariker’s Early Cotton
Earns Widespread Praise

Even though many factors contribute to the success of managing for earliness, Mississippi Extension cotton specialist Darrin Dodds is a big believer in Justin Cariker’s early planted cotton this year.

He received a phone call from Cariker in June about an early bloom observed on some cotton. At the time, Dodds thought it was the earliest bloom he had ever heard of on any Mississippi cotton farm.

“I have been in this state for 10 years, and I have never seen a cotton bloom in May or early June,” he says. “It’s exciting what Justin has done. It all hinged on having the right kind of weather. He took a chance, and it paid off.”

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 2.42.20 PMDodds says it also took a combination of factors for this early cotton to survive – favorable temperatures, variety, planting date, nitrogen management and timely rains.

Producers can manage for earliness even if they didn’t plant their cotton early. Dodds says

it’s a management tool that can positively affect a farm’s bottom-line profitability and is a year-round commitment.

Cariker’s consultant, Tim Sanders, probably summed it up best when evaluating the success of the early planted cotton.

“When I saw how that cotton was coming up in early April, I was wishing that I had planted all of my cotton back then,” he says. “It looked that great from the very first day.”

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