Establishing A Healthy Cotton Stand

MISSISSIPPI | Brian Pieralisi

brian pieralisi
Brian Pieralisi,

Establishing a cotton stand can be tricky. Given the current time of year, I will give an analogy that compares college baseball to healthy cotton stand establishment. Here it goes: in baseball, it all begins with planning and recruiting the best players, using solid equipment, lots of practice, execution and a little luck. Cotton stand establishment can be viewed the same way. Cotton producers study variety performance as it pertains to their region and agronomic practices to hedge against poor variety placement right out of the gate.

Prior to planting, planter maintenance is paramount to ensure nothing is worn out or needs replacing, and hopefully the planter got a little “practice” in planting both corn and soybean (Mississippi). It’s also about execution and getting proper seed-to-soil contact at proper depth and soil moisture. Precision planters are good about informing you of current seed-to-soil situation, but with proper diligence, the same seed placement can be achieved with most any good working condition planter. 

And finally, a little luck goes a long way, whether it’s from Mother Nature or attributed to one of those perfect planting seasons! Perfect planting conditions and timing can help bring in the win in terms of yield about as much as anything else. From a Mississippi State perspective, it couldn’t have gone more right in 2021, and we struggled in both 2022 and 2023. Even when you do everything right, sometimes it just doesn’t all add up… so, I’m hoping for a little luck this year!

MISSOURI | Bradley Wilson

Bradley Wilson, Missouri

Healthy plant stands are extremely important to produce a timely cotton crop in the Missouri Bootheel. Being on the northern end of the cotton growing region, unhealthy or reduced plant stands can delay crop maturity and can cause reduced cotton yields at harvest. Furthermore, replanting due to unhealthy or reduced stands also leads to a delay in crop maturity. At planting, conditions can change rapidly in our cotton-growing region, it is not uncommon to have high amounts of rainfall and cool conditions following the planting window. The environmental conditions mentioned above at planting are known to increase seedling diseases in young cotton seedlings. When planting early or in adverse conditions, it is beneficial to utilize an in-furrow fungicide to protect seedlings from organisms that cause seedling diseases.

When making the decision to put seed in the ground, we want environmental conditions to have a favorable outlook in the first five days. When cotton DD-60s are predicted to accumulate 36 to 50 inches in the five-day outlook, we deem these as favorable conditions to place seed in the ground. Soil temperatures two inches to four inches in depth should be at 65° Fahrenheit before seed is placed into the ground for optimum germination.

It is common to observe cover crop utilization in Missouri for protection of young cotton seedlings from sandblasting. Generally, it is recommended to terminate cover two to three weeks prior to planting to reduce competition. Additionally, planting into weed-free conditions will also reduce growth competition and eliminate insect hosts from the field. Planting into living cover is generally not recommended as it can cause reduced stand establishment and result in a “green bridge” effect that increases cotton insect pests. In fields infested with nematodes, seedling emergence is likely to be greater when utilizing a resistant cultivar. When planting with susceptible cultivars in these conditions, it is recommended to use a seed-applied nematicide along with an in-furrow nematicide to protect young cotton seedlings.

NORTH CAROLINA |Keith Edmisten

Keith Edmisten
Keith Edmisten,
North Carolina

We are hearing more about growers increasing cotton acreage since earlier in the year as cotton prices have rebounded relative to corn and soybeans. With mid-80s pricing, we still have to be very careful with inputs. In January, we talked about concentrating on basic expenditures that can make us money. These are variety selection, fertility, weed and insect control and avoiding unproven inputs.

Reducing risk is also a good strategy to help when facing tight economics. There are several ways to reduce risk. Spreading out the planting season can help reduce risk so that all of your crop is not subject to the same adverse weather conditions like drought or tropical storms. Using multiple varieties can also reduce risk. Avoiding the use of disruptive insecticides where they are not needed can help reduce the risk of causing other insect problems. Additionally, plan ahead to use more stormproof varieties for fields that you will likely harvest last.

TENNESSEE | Tyson Raper

Tyson Raper, Tennessee
Tyson Raper,

Establishing a healthy cotton stand is critical along the northern edge of the cotton belt, as unhealthy stands often result in delayed maturity and put us at risk of running out of heat units. The healthiest stands will be in fields which do not have “green” plant material present — whether that be cover crops or weeds. Properly burning down will prevent green bridge pests from bleeding over into our cash crop and will ease weed control activities in-season.

Achieving adequate seed-to-soil contact without placing the seed too deep will also help each seedling get off to a great start. If not planting ThryvOn, an insecticide application targeting thrips at the emergence of the first true leaf will likely be warranted. Acephate resistance in thrips has pushed us to other chemistries for this spray. This insecticide application is very important if thrips pressure is moderate and cool, wet conditions are in the forecast. Keep in mind that pop-up fertilizers are not needed in Tennessee cotton; most of our soils are capable of meeting early season cotton nutrient demands through squaring.

VIRGINIA | Hunter Frame

Hunter Frame
Hunter Frame

April is burndown month for cotton here in Virginia and sprayers will be covering as many acres as possible. As I write this in March, it looks like cotton acres will be up in Virginia as corn and soybean prices remain lower and less competitive. However, things can change in a hurry as we all know. Proper burndown is key to achieving adequate cotton stands. Winter cover crops are becoming increasingly utilized in Virginia with research demonstrating that cotton can be produced following legume cover crops without the need for fertilizer nitrogen.

Timely burndown is critical to minimizing competition for soil moisture and prevent cover crops from becoming weeds themselves. Also, seed preparation is complicated with the use of cover crops, so producers need to commit to a complete kill of the cover crop or planting “green” when it comes to cotton. Most are burning down to alleviate complications when utilizing strip-tillage for cotton planting. Little to no cotton is produced using conventional tillage in Virginia, and only a small acreage is grown under no-till.

The difficultly of high biomass cover crops is maintaining proper seeding depth when you have a residue layer two to five inches thick and want a cotton seed no deeper than 0.75 inches. When equipment is set properly, even in heavy cover crop biomass, cotton stands can be achieved with surprising results. An adequate stand in Virginia is final population of two plants per row foot equaling 29,000 plants per acre on 36-inch row spacing. We recommend to have a goal of 2.5 plants per row foot and a final plant population of around 36,000 plants per acre. This would mean a seeding rate of 2.75 to 3.0 seeds per row foot. Finally, check your cool and warm germination for your seed lot and plant when environmental conditions are conducive for cotton emergence.

GEORGIA | Camp Hand

camp hand
Camp Hand,

“Anybody can plant cotton…” There’s a lot of truth in that — anybody can put the seed in the ground, but that doesn’t guarantee a good stand. A lot goes into getting a stand of cotton and below are some of the things I’d be thinking about.

Planting seed quality — Putting good seed in the ground is extremely important. The best measures we currently have for seed quality are warm and cool germ tests, but other things in the seed contribute to seed quality as well. If you would like to get your seed tested prior to planting, please contact your local University of Georgia county Extension agent.

Seedbed preparation — Regardless of conventional or strip tillage, having a good, clean seedbed at planting is vital for seed-to-soil contact, thus resulting in a higher likelihood of a good stand. Good moisture at planting might be the most critical step to getting a gold stand in Georgia. Of course, in our dryland fields, we need to plant when we have moisture. In irrigated situations, we can help ourselves a little more, but it is vital in both situations to plant into good moisture.

Planter performance — Make sure your planter is performing properly prior to and during planting. Drs. Wes Porter and Simer Virk created a planter checklist to help with this that can be found here:

Anybody can plant cotton, but everybody can’t get a stand. I’m hoping for incredible conditions and wish you all a safe and productive planting season. As always, if you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to reach out. Your local UGA county Extension agents and specialists are here to help!

ALABAMA | Steve M. Brown

STEVE BROWN, alabama
Steve M. Brown,

Is it not amazing that we can poke a rock-like kernel in the ground and ultimately make our living from that?! Though much preparation proceeds planting, stand establishment launches the season.

According to my favorite weather expert Eric Snodgrass, who posts his thoughts weekly on Cotton Incorporated’s Cotton Cultivated webpage, April and May 2024 are expected to be slightly wetter than normal. He also admits that extended forecasts for this period — prime time for planting cotton in the Lower Southeast — are not rock-solid. Jet stream patterns, slow-moving or stationary highs and lows, etc. are somewhat unpredictable during mid-spring and make for difficult, slippery forecasts.

Remember what happened in 2023? April and the early days of May last year were much cooler than normal. At Prattville, we counted only a 20% stand seven days after a May 2 planting. That was surprising but should have been expected — for three days after planting, the daily lows averaged 46 degrees F. We normally see strong emergence four to five days after planting. Cool weather made for a slow start last year… but we caught up in July and August with HOT temperatures.

Assuming near-normal April temperatures and a favorable forecast, many should take advantage of available soil moisture any time after April 15-20 and commence planting, especially if the time required for planting exceeds 18 days. For us, soil moisture is usually a greater limiting factor than soil temperature.

Two more suggestions. In terms of seed, know what you’ve got. Request from your dealer the warm and cool germ data as well as seed count per pound for each seed lot. Varieties with low cool germ values and small seed generally have limited pushing power. These should be planted when conditions are ideal for emergence, which means soil temps in the 70s or better with good soil moisture. Secondly, check and adjust planters to ensure accuracy of seed singulation, seeding rates and depth.

And since planting season is a time of hurry, give extra thought and vigilance to safety.

ARIZONA | Randy Norton

Randy Norton
Randy Norton

On the day of this writing, my research team and I spent the day establishing reference and background plots for our nematode trials scheduled for 2024. Microscopic parasitic roundworms, better known as nematodes, are present in many of our cotton-producing soils across Arizona. The most prevalent and most damaging to our cotton production systems is the root-knot nematode (RKN – Meloidogyne incognita). Under heavy pressure, production can be severely limited.

Symptoms of a nematode issue are often overlooked or dismissed as some other abiotic stressor such as water or nutrient stress. The only way to determine if nematodes are an issue is to inspect the plant roots and look for the presence of swellings on the root, which is an indication of an RKN infection. Soil samples analyzed by a nematology laboratory can determine the magnitude of the population in the soil and the distribution of the species in the sample. Due to their increased mobility in coarser-textured soils, we typically observe higher populations and more damaging conditions in sandier soils as compared to finer textured clay soils.

Characterizing the distribution of soil texture within a field can be used to spatially treat a nematode problem by applying control measures only in areas of the field where nematodes are a significant issue. Utilizing GPS and GIS systems allows for the effective and more efficient management of this soil-borne pest. The material being applied in our test plots today was the soil fumigant, Telone. Soil fumigants such as Telone are extremely effective control measures for RKN. Other effective options as evaluated in our research trials include aldicarb (AgLogic) and fluopyram (Velum).

Recently, we have seen the release of an increasing number of cotton varieties with resistance to RKN with several seed companies expanding their offerings of RKN-resistant varieties. In local nematode management trials, one of the most consistent methods for managing RKN populations has proven to be resistant varieties. The 2024 nematode management trials will continue to evaluate resistant and susceptible varieties in conjunction with other treatment options for managing this damaging cotton pest. In 2024, we will also be including the long-standing and effective treatment of Telone as a baseline for comparison.

TEXAS | Ken Legé

Ken Lège, Texas

With warm temperatures recently in West Texas, growers have begun thinking about variety selection and preparing for planting in a little over 60 days from now.  Variety selection is an important decision, as it can be made once and establishes the genetic yield potential of a field.

Once the variety selection decision is made, growers should focus on the quality of the seed they are receiving.  High quality seed is key to establishing a uniform stand of cotton — uniform in spacing and uniform in plant age is the goal, regardless of the desired plant population. Planting seed will have a tag that reads “80% germination,” which reflects the minimum standard required by state and federal seed laws; however, warm germ will most likely be higher.

Additionally, the more important seed quality information to be aware of is the cool germination percentage, which provides a better assessment of seed vigor and a better prediction of field emergence under field conditions. While not required by state or federal seed laws, the industry standard for cool germ is 60%. Combining the warm and cool germ percentages creates the Cool-Warm Vigor Index (CWVI), which is a very informative guide for the grower regarding seed quality. For example, adding 80% warm and 60% cool germ equates to a 140 CWVI, which is a very good minimum standard for planting seed and gives the growers lots of options on when and in what conditions to plant that seed. If the CWVI is less than 140, the grower should either increase seeding rate or plant under more optimal conditions to compensate for the lower quality. This may be necessary for new or limited-supply varieties that is a grower’s favorite.

Soil conditions at planting is also important for proper germination. Good contact between soil particles and seed is necessary for the imbibition to take place to initiate the germination process. Proper adjustment of planters to ensure optimum, but not excessive, pressure is important. A well-prepared seed bed, void of large clods and with good moisture, plays an important role in achieving good soil-to-seed contact as well.

Seeding depth greatly affects how quickly the seedling will emerge. Particularly in dryland scenarios, it is important to determine at what depth adequate moisture is present to support seed germination. Uniformity of seeding depth down the row is important for achieving a uniform stand of cotton; an optimum stand of cotton is one where seedlings across the field emerge within a few hours of one another. Typically, planter speed and proper adjustment of seeding depth among row units are the factors most often affecting the uniformity of emergence across the field.

Cotton is very sensitive to cool temperatures. Since most West Texas growers have to wait on a “planting rain” to sow cottonseed, there are times they are forced to plant when moisture is available, but perhaps under suboptimal temperatures. Chilling injury can result when temperatures at seed depth are below 50 degrees F during imbibition, so always monitor soil temperature (everyone should have and use a soil thermometer!).

A good rule of thumb is that the soil temperature at seeding depth will normally be within 1 degree Fahrenheit at dawn (which typically is the low temperature for a 24-hour period). Tracking the forecasted heat units for the next five days following a proposed planting date provides a useful guide to planting. Ideally, at least 26 or more DD60s should accumulate in the next five days to achieve a good stand; 50 or more is even better. We are very fortunate to have the West Texas Mesonet ( that provides air temperature and soil temperatures at most locations.

Soil conditions, moisture and temperature are very important for achieving a good stand; the highest-quality seed with very large seed size and the best seed treatment cannot overcome poor planting conditions.

Optimum planting date is a question I get frequently, and it has always been difficult to answer. I think every grower has a date in his or her mind they want to start planting cotton, oftentimes because Grandpa always started planting cotton on that date. The truth is, there is likely a really good reason Grandpa started on that date, as he likely had repeated success. However, agronomically, it is always a good idea to look at the weather conditions, consider your planting capacity and make sound decisions about when to put seed in the ground for the best chance of success. Another important thing to remember is that most growers can plant a lot faster than they can harvest, so always begin with the end in mind. And listen to Grandpa and at least have the planter maintained and ready to go by his favorite date!

TEXAS | Ben McKnight

ben mcknight
Ben McKnight,
Texas A&M

As I write this March 5, the temperature in College Station is 85 degrees, and the planting of grain crops is nearing completion in the Upper Gulf Coast and Blackland Prairie growing regions. With the recent stretch of warm weather, cotton planting has progressed northward from the Lower Rio Grande Valley into the Coastal Bend. By the time you are reading this in early April, cotton planting will most likely be well underway or nearing completion in the Upper Gulf Coast so long as the weather forecast remains favorable for planting cotton.

Achieving a good cotton stand is often the result of deciding to plant during favorable environmental conditions. Soil temperatures at a four-inch depth in the mid- to upper-60s, along with adequate soil moisture and a good extended weather forecast are a big step in the right direction. An excellent tool growers can utilize to take some of the guesswork out of making a planting-timing decision is the Cotton Planting Conditions Calculator found at Aside from environmental conditions, there are some things we can do to further enhance the ability to get the 2024 growing season off to a good start.

Ensuring that our planting equipment is working properly and maximizing consistent seed placement will further assist in achieving a successful plant stand. For a cotton seed to begin the germination process, soil water must be imbibed by the seed, and achieving good soil-to-seed contact during planting can improve the initial water uptake by a cotton seed. For growers electing to reduce their seeding rates, this is especially important for obtaining the highest rate of germination and seedling emergence.

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