Friday, March 31, 2023

Preparing The Crop For Harvest

STEVE BROWN, alabama
Steve M. Brown,

I once had a girl friend named “Earlene” (not her real name). Earlene was attending a pre-wedding function in Birmingham on a Saturday and had to travel through Decatur where I was working. With my boss’ permission, I invited her to spend Friday night with him and his wife and scheduled plans for dinner and the play, The Miracle Worker, which was about Helen Keller. Earlene agreed, and I looked forward to Friday.

Imagine my surprise on Thursday after work when I was driving in my boss’ neighborhood and saw in his driveway what looked like Earlene’s car. It was! I changed directions and went in to greet Earlene. She was a day early but didn’t realize it.

After supper I gave her a tour of the town and asked if she would be able to stay for Friday’s activities. She looked surprised and said, “No, I have to be in Birmingham by lunch tomorrow (meaning Saturday).” Earlene, being rather dignified and proper, covered her embarrassment even after I finally convinced her that it was Thursday and not Friday.

I still chuckle when I think about this almost 40 years after the fact. Earlene was a day early. Early Earlene.

When it comes to timeliness of harvest in the Lower Southeast, we need a nudge from “Earlene;” that is, an urgency to get ‘er done, to gather the crop with great haste. Sure, peanut harvest and the hope of a few late bolls sometime delay us. How many years and miles I’ve driven across the region wishing I had a giant vacuum cleaner to suck up all the fully open cotton in fields with no picker in sight.

I had hoped the roll picker would be the solution. What a machine! And the painful lessons of storms such as Michael and Sally serve as ready reminders of the vulnerability of our crop.

So as you prepare for harvest aid applications and get your pickers ready, remember Earlene. We had a good day, that Friday when she was EARLY.

Bill Robertson, University of Arkansas
Bill Robertson,

The crop production report for Arkansas released in August by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Agricultural Statistics Service estimated cotton production at 980,000 bales, down 23%, or 297,000 bales, below last year.

Based on conditions as of Aug. 1, lint yield is expected to average 1,161 pounds per harvested acre, down 18 pounds from last year. Our five-year lint yield average is 1,150 pounds per harvested acre. Producers expect to harvest 405,000 acres of cotton, down 120,000 acres from 2020.

Weather patterns in 2021 generally resulted in making a late crop even later. Currently, yield potential appears to be on track or slightly better than our five-year average. This crop’s potential is still very good, and we could possibly see increased yield estimates with favorable weather.

However, pushing a crop and chasing bolls that have little affect on lint yield and profitability could cut into yield and quality potential. An almost perfect September for maturing our crop coupled with wise management is needed for us to have a shot at reaching record yields we have grown accustomed to achieving. This season has not been easy or cheap and likely will not get any easier.

The first fields planted are not always the first to be harvested. Knowing our most mature fields is critical in harvest management. Boll slicing may be our best tool to evaluate maturity this year.

As we progress toward the end of this season, we must continue to manage the crop in a timely fashion with a goal of getting pickers in the field mid-September. Contact your local county Extension agent for more information.

Randy Norton
Randy Norton

As we approach the final stages of the cotton season, decisions are going to be made regarding crop termination and harvest preparation. A few items to keep in mind include boll maturation timelines and harvest aid application timings.

First, remember that an accumulated 600 heat units (86/55 degrees Fahrenheit threshold) are required for a fresh bloom to become a harvestable green boll with completed fiber development. Depending on location in the state, this number of heat units will take 20-25 days to accumulate.

Adequate soil-plant water relations are required for proper boll maturation and fiber development. Determining the date for final irrigations will be based on a decision to take a set of fresh blooms to harvest.

A typical scenario might be a set of blooms that opens Sept. 15 will need through approximately the first few days of October to mature properly. Non-water stressed conditions during this period are important to properly mature that set of bolls. Depending on several factors, including evaporative demand, precipitation, soil texture, etc., a final irrigation around Sept. 15-20 should be sufficient to mature that boll set.

Once the final irrigation has been applied, thoughts move to harvest prep application timing. Typically, the rule of thumb of two times the late season irrigation interval is sufficient time for the crop to mature and be ready for a defoliant application. This will also depend on weather conditions, soil type, crop vigor status, etc.

Another good indicator is the percentage of open bolls in the field. Typically, 60% open bolls needs to be achieved prior to any harvest prep applications. If using a desiccant such as sodium chlorate, percent open boll should be in the 80% or greater range.

For more information on these topics and others, visit the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension website at

David Wright, Florida
David Wright,

For the past four to five years, tropical storms have occurred during cotton harvest. Some growers fared well while others who had planted either earlier or later than normal had open cotton when the storm came through, so they lost yield and quality. Having adequate picking capacity when crop is ready to harvest can help ensure that the cotton that produced is harvested and sold.

Cotton is the rotation crop for peanuts in the Florida Panhandle. Peanuts are harvested before cotton harvest starts even though both crops may be ready. Many growers may get custom harvesters to pick cotton while they are harvesting peanuts. Some seasons with several tropical storms have helped growers make the decision to hire custom pickers.

Likewise, plan where to locate bales so cotton is not standing in water if a large rain occurs and water ponds for a week or two. Bales should be located near the road on high ground where they can be moved to the gin even under wet conditions. We suggest not putting bales under power lines as trees fall on the lines, which may start fires.

Many bales have burned or couldn’t be moved with wires laying on them. Hurricanes have blocked field roads with downed trees so have more than one exit from fields for the bales.

Service your pickers before harvest season. If spindles, moisture pads and doffers need replacing or adjusting, this can be done in the winter when time is less critical. Well-adjusted pickers will pick cleaner and save time before the next storm occurs.

camp hand
Camp Hand,

For those who read my last installment in Specialists Speaking, I would like to apologize as I feel I may have jinxed us. At the time I wrote it, our crop looked great. Now, as a consultant recently told Dr. Phillip Roberts, our crop resembles a Clint Eastwood movie… “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” As of Aug. 16, the good stuff looks really good, and the bad stuff… well it’s not so good.

The recent rainfall amount we have received has prevented some of the crop from taking up nutrients and developing a root system. This is greatly delaying maturity in much of our late-planted crop. Recent weather has made harvest preparations complex, to say the least.

The lack of sunlight and profuse amounts of rain across the state in July and August have resulted in aborted fruit, along with other issues. This leads to complications when determining when to defoliate the crop. It is important, when evaluating the crop for defoliation, that we use two methods to ensure that both are accurate.


When determining defoliation timing, keep in mind you don’t want to defoliate more than you can pick in a timely manner in the next 10 to 14 days. Getting our crop off in a timely manner is a major key to producing the high-quality crop our industry demands.

Additionally, many of you will remember from Using Pesticides Wisely trainings that the No. 1 drift complaint in Georgia last year was defoliants. The lessons learned at UPW trainings for on-target pesticide applications apply to all pesticides and should be kept in mind when initiating defoliation.

I will be interacting with all of you (in-person or virtually) in the coming weeks and months to discuss many of these topics. I look forward to these conversations. As always, your local UGA county Extension agent and specialists are here to help! Reach out if you have any questions.

matt foster
Matt Foster,

On Aug. 12, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency reported 101,851 planted acres of cotton in Louisiana, which is down about 48% from the 10-year average of 195,500 acres. Hot and dry weather conditions over the past few weeks have caused cotton to mature relatively quickly in some areas of the state. Some fields are past cutout or five nodes above white flower.

Growers with access to irrigation are irrigating to finish out the crop, and dryland growers are hoping for a rain. Potassium deficiencies have been popping up around the state as well as some target spot (around 1%). Some open bolls are present; however, a portion of our crop won’t have open bolls until early September. Overall, the cotton crop is average to below average.

As growers prepare for the 2021 cotton harvest, defoliation timing principles should be taken into consideration. Growing up, I often heard farmers and consultants say, “Timing cotton defoliation is an art.” There are several accepted defoliation timing methods, each with pros and cons.

The three most common methods for timing cotton defoliation include 60% open boll, four nodes above cracked boll or 1,050 heat units beyond cutout.

Prior to defoliation, growers should inspect the uppermost harvestable boll by cutting a cross-section. A boll is considered mature if it is difficult to cut with a knife and seed coats are tan/brown or black. Once a dark seed coat has formed, defoliation will not adversely affect yield on those bolls. For more information regarding cotton defoliation, please see the LSU AgCenter cotton harvest aid publication at

brian pieralisi
Brian Pieralisi,

The 2021 cotton season has been tough for Mississippi growers. At this point in August, on average our crop is three weeks behind schedule and highly variable in terms of yield potential. As I travel the state looking at cotton, planting date seems to be the most important factor influencing crop development.

In most cases, earlier planted cotton looks far better than later planted cotton. This is primarily due to the environmental challenges we faced from the end of May through mid-June. The three weeks of cool, wet weather caused a delay in maturity that has remained with the crop the entire season.

Cotton in our region is fruiting a few nodes higher than normal, which is putting pressure on the middle and top crop to produce and hold fruit to maximize yield potential. We have had good heat unit accumulation over the past couple weeks, which has proven to be beneficial in stacking fruit on the nodes.

Plant bug pressure has been high since early bloom, causing reductions in fruit retention if not treated in a timely manner.

As harvest quickly approaches, environmental factors will dictate our success in making a crop. A hot, relatively dry August and September is needed to accumulate enough heat units to compensate for the later-than-normal crop. Hopefully, we can avoid an unseasonable cool snap early in September and miss a couple of tropical rains.

I think some farmers will pick cotton in late September this year, but it appears the bulk of the crop will be harvested during October.

Guy Collins, North Carolina
Guy Collins,
North Carolina

We are always on edge during September to see what the fall weather will bring. A rain or two during this time isn’t necessarily a problem. It can help finish out the top crop or add weight to lint, potentially help harvest aid efficacy (compared to severely dry weather) and help get our cover crops started for next year.

Prolonged wet or cloudy weather, or even heavy, intense rains and winds during this time can do more harm than good. Light, intermittent rains with sufficient sunshine are much preferred during September and October, although we have little control over this.

We hope insect management will be completed by the time this is read. As we move into September, growers should pay special attention to defoliation and harvest timeliness.

A significant portion of our crop is later-than-normal, which could influence what products we use and rates of some harvest aids, in addition to prevailing temperatures and sunlight during the time when later cotton matures.

However, we have some early cotton, too. It would behoove us to pay close attention to when each field reaches maturity and is ready for defoliation. If the two-week forecast looks favorable, there’s no need to wait to defoliate cotton that is ready. The same applies to harvest.

In many cases, mature cotton could be defoliated earlier in September and harvested earlier-than-normal, which may help avoid weathering losses on some acres if we experience tropical weather during the harvest season.

Similarly, timely defoliation and harvest can help us avoid the “November trap” when dew or rainfall doesn’t dry as quickly, and harvest hours begin to diminish rapidly.

seth byrd
Seth Byrd,

Much of the cotton across the Cotton Belt has one thing in common this year — being behind. That describes a lot of the cotton in Oklahoma as well, most of which is one to three weeks behind where it would ideally be as I write this in mid-August. As we move into September, it will be key to monitor crop growth and development.

Like in many other cotton-producing areas, September is a critical month in Oklahoma. By this point, the crop has developed whatever fruit load we expect to harvest. It’s now a matter of having favorable weather conditions to achieve high yields and quality.

The last effective bloom date for most of Oklahoma’s acres occurs in late August. By early September, the fruit that will make up the bulk of harvested lint will be at 1- to 2-week-old bolls, or older.

Expectations were high as we entered September a year ago, although an early cold snap and a cooler-than-normal month affected both the yield and the quality of the 2020 crop. A repeat of that in 2021 would be even more harmful given where much of the crop is regarding development.

However, a mild September could allow us to capitalize on a crop that has great fruit retention up to this point, primarily due to timely rains and shorter periods of extreme temperatures this summer than typically experienced in Oklahoma.

As usual, September will dictate much of the success, or lack thereof, this season. Monitor the progress of the bolls set in late August to get a better idea of when the crop might reach the optimal window for harvest aid applications.

It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on the overall progress of both boll maturity and natural crop senescence to determine what issues need to be addressed, and what products can address them when the time comes to make that harvest aid application.

Tyson Raper, Tennessee
Tyson Raper,

As I write this Aug. 12, Tennessee’s crop is one of the latest maturing we’ve ever seen. Things are drying out, but the chances for rain are relatively high over the next few days. If we catch another rain, I suspect many will be tempted to push past the typical insecticide termination dates during the first week of September and continue to manage insect pests until mid-September.

The risk is investing more money into positions that have a low likelihood of maturing. But the potential reward may justify the added expense, especially considering how few fruiting positions we had by our last effective flowering date.

I would be surprised if we are defoliating before the October comments arrive, but defoliation and boll opening in Tennessee will likely be under cooler-than-ideal conditions. Expect to use stout rates of ethephon and tribufos to open and defoliate the crop.

This year, the trick will be properly identifying and monitoring the uppermost harvestable boll while watching the forecast.

ben mcknight
Ben McKnight,
Texas A&M

As of mid-August, the weather-related challenges many Texas cotton growers experienced earlier in the year continue to extend the growing season. The cotton crop in the Central and Southern regions of the state is anywhere from two to three weeks behind an average year in maturity.

In the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Coastal Bend, harvesting is just beginning. In both regions, several fields are variable regarding plant maturity and boll load.

Low areas in fields where inundated conditions persisted after abundant rainfall are not going to contribute to overall yield as much as areas in the field where drainage occurred quicker.

irrigated field with cover crop near Lamesa, Texas
Irrigated field with cover crop near Lamesa, Texas — photo by Murilo Maeda

Early reports of yield estimates in both regions are in the 2- to 2.5-bale range. To further complicate the onset of harvesting the crop, delayed plant growth regulator applications due to weather conditions have resulted in plants with rank growth, which will present additional challenges with getting the crop out of the field.

Additionally, mature cotton plants in areas with abundant soil moisture have been more difficult to defoliate before harvest.

In the Upper Gulf Coast growing region, earlier planted cotton is starting to crack bolls and later planted fields are at cutout. High daytime temperatures lately have helped cotton maturity progress, but cooler conditions experienced throughout most of the growing season still have cotton maturity delayed compared to other years.

Much of the cotton in the Upper Gulf Coast has matured past the point of warranting an insecticide application, and growers are counting down the days until the onset of harvest aid application.

Timely mid- to late-season rainfall in the Blackland Prairie may boost cotton yields in the region to above average. Fields lacking the capability to drain water quickly in some areas have considerable variability in the crop.

Overall, the cotton crop in this region has recovered nicely from early and midseason weather. Most of the cotton in the Blackland Prairie is at or approaching cutout.

Cotton in the Rolling Plains growing region has also benefitted from timely rainfall following high daily temperatures. These warm temperatures have aided with crop progression maturity, and earlier planted fields are in bloom.

Like other production regions around the state, average cotton maturity in the Rolling Plains is delayed compared to other years.

Murilo Maeda
Murilo Maeda,
Texas A&M

Cotton has come a long way since planting back in May and June. In general, we are looking at a great crop this year, although some of it is definitely late. Our weather has been rather mild this season compared to years past. By Aug. 9, we had seen 22 days with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in 2020, whereas this year we have had a total of six days.

We continue to be behind schedule on heat unit accumulation with differences between our long-term averages and this year’s increasing since I last wrote to you.

drip-irrigated texas cotton field
Drip-irrigated field near Brownfield, Texas. The center pivot in the background was not used this season — photo by Murilo Maeda

Through the first half of August, rainfall has been isolated across West Texas. Places with sandier soils have already started to see the effects of drier conditions with some fields wilting by mid- to late afternoon. The short-term forecast, however, includes some rain chances for the region, which would be timely.

Aphids have recently started to show up in many locations, so growers are urged to keep an eye out for them. Dr. Suhas Vyavhare, Extension entomologist at Lubbock, recommends scouting fields twice a week since aphid numbers can increase rapidly. About 50-60 leaves should be checked throughout the field, from top, middle and lower portions of the plants.

The action threshold is 40-60 aphids per leaf prior to the first cracked boll. That number decreases significantly to about 10 per leaf after bolls start opening due to the potential affect on lint quality and harvest and ginning efficiency.

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