Tips To Establish A Healthy Stand

Murilo Maeda
Murilo Maeda
Texas A&M

As we approach cotton-planting season, growers should be aware of all factors influencing initial crop establishment. By now, most have already selected varieties. It is time to focus on pieces of information that can assist you in making decisions during the planting process.

When planting season rolls around, folks get busy. I encourage you to pay close attention to the weather forecast and local field conditions, including soil temperature and moisture level.

Become familiar with available resources, such as North Carolina State University’s Cotton Planting Condition Calculator, which can be found at This is a simple but effective tool to assist in determining forecasted heat unit accumulation for cotton planting. You can check your farm in under a minute once you become familiar with it.

Ideally, we would like to see at least 25 heat units accumulated during the first five days following planting. Cotton, like many other plants, is affected by air/soil temperature, including at the germination phase. Other external factors, such as planter settings, planting speed and seed quality are also important and should be accounted for.

Growers are encouraged to obtain cool germination test values from seed companies and seed retailers for seed they will plant in 2020. This information, along with the warm germination test value can be of great value when determining the best time to plant variety A versus variety B based on local and forecasted conditions. When added together (warm + cool) test values allow us to classify seed vigor index into poor (< 120), fair (120 – 139), good (140 – 159) and excellent (> 160).

While none of this information guarantees final crop performance, research conducted over the years has shown the importance of getting your crop off to a good start. You should use this information to help make good decisions at planting. If you have not checked yet, the Texas Replicated Agronomic Cotton Evaluation (RACE) trials by region is available at

Seth Byrd, Oklahoma
Seth Byrd,

The past two years have experienced stout, early season challenges to planting and stand establishment. In 2018, extremely hot and dry conditions during May and early June resulted in seedlings that sprouted but failed to emerge, suboptimal stands and replants.

In 2019, cool, wet conditions delayed or prevented planting completely in some areas. Slow, early season growth and reduced stands were common. These two years have caused early season difficulties. But they have been learning opportunities not only for what planting practices have been successful in these conditions but also which varieties have performed well under early season stress.

The general recommendations for successful planting include planting into a moist seed bed at minimum soil temperatures in the low to mid-60s, with 40 to 60 heat units accumulated and no severe weather forecasted in the five to seven days following planting. Using experience as our guide is a common recommendation for variety selection. Our experience for the past two years can be used to determine varieties that have been successful under these harsh conditions.

Adequate fertility and eliminating competition from weeds are key for early season success. Have a preseason plan for fertility application schedules and rates. Be flexible in response to weather to ensure fertility needs are met while avoiding excess applications and unnecessary

Bill Robertson, Arkansas
Bill Robertson,

The first step toward a successful season is establishing a healthy stand. Cotton does not tolerate difficulties encountered during its first weeks of growth nearly as well as most of our insect pests and weeds.

While last year we were only about 50% planted as we rolled into Memorial Day weekend, we basically doubled our planted acres by the end of the month. Yields ended up ranking in the top five. Generally speaking, history tells us the earlier we plant, the better we do. Just remember that early planting does not equal earliness.

Optimum conditions for planting include a mid-morning 68-degree Fahrenheit soil temperature at 2 inches for three consecutive days, along with a favorable five-day forecast. Regardless of the calendar date, park the planter if heat unit accumulation (DD60s) is predicted to be 15 or less for the five-day period after planting. Good results are often seen with 25 or more heat units accumulated during the five-day period after planting.

It is important to start with the best quality seed to increase the chances of getting a good uniform stand if conditions are less-than-optimum. As seed size decreases, the importance of having good soil temperatures increases.

There are many signals or signs that people use to indicate the right time to plant. Getting off to a good, quick start will pay dividends season long if we do it right the first time.

Calvin Meeks, Missouri
Calvin Meeks,

It appears we are in for another wet year in the Bootheel for the 2020 growing season. The 2019 season was successful for most growers with high yields and hopefully higher prices after the COVID19 situation is over.

As I write this March 1, field work is behind schedule, and fields are quite soggy considering the cool, wet winter.

However, when planting tome arrives, here are a few important considerations if planting under less-than-ideal conditions. Soil temperatures at the 2-inch depth lower than 68 degrees Fahrenheit at mid-morning would be less than ideal. Fewer than 35 DD60s forecast for five days would be less than optimal. Calculating the DD60 forecast is simplified with technology today, and several free tools are available.

A Beltwide DD60 planting calculator that gives a county-by-county DD60 forecast is online at

However, Missouri weather stations are not present in the Mesonet. You will have to input 2-inch soil temperatures manually.

Another free tool developed by Drs. Guy Collins and Keith Edmisten at North Carolina State University is online at Since it is based on Google Maps, you can zoom in to an individual field anywhere in the country to get a DD60 planting forecast.

If you are forced to plant cotton in less-than-ideal conditions, I recommend considering high-vigor varieties. This PDF ranks the 2018 varieties at Lower-vigor varieties need to be planted later when conditions have improved.

It is also advisable to increase seeding rates 10% to 15% while also planting shallower (1/2 inch) to ensure the best possible chance of getting a stand.

Planting larger-seeded varieties is advisable since they tend to have more energy reserves to better cope with the stress of suboptimal germination conditions. Also consider seed treatments to help protect young plants. Finally, consider in-furrow insecticides if cover crops have not been terminated prior to planting.

Tyson Raper, Tennessee
Tyson Raper,

Our recommended planting window for Tennessee cotton falls between April 20 and May 10. If you are lucky enough to plant your crop within this window, there is a good chance those seedlings will face cooler-than-desirable soil temperatures. Subsequently, cool germ test results are particularly important early in the season.

Seed lots with less-than-ideal cool germs would be better suited to later planting in May. Most companies can provide this information when requested. Another parameter that may help a struggling seedling make it through less-than-optimum conditions is seed size. Although the correlation is not perfect, larger seed sizes are often associated with more vigorous seedlings.

Unfortunately, seed supplies are not endless. We often must settle for less-than-ideal characteristics in a given seed lot to get the variety we want.

If you end up with a low cool germ lot or a small-seeded lot, consider increasing the seeding rate slightly to achieve your target population. Better yet, delay planting to avoid stressing the seedlings. Shifting lower cool germ, smaller-seed lots to later in the planting window and shifting good cool germ, larger-seed lots to an earlier planting window reduces the chance of having to replant acres and likely heartburn, too.

STEVE BROWN, alabama
Steve Brown

Hey, it’s 2020. Yet, I haven’t seen or heard any reference current of upcoming events to sayings like “20/20 vision” or “Hindsight is 20/20.” The term “20/20” refers to a measurement of vision. If you see clearly what you’re normally supposed to see at 20 feet, you have 20/20 vision. You’d think some marketing guru or politician would be touting 20/20 vision for 2020.

While hindsight is not always 20/20, it is obvious that if we knew exactly what was going to happen in the coming weeks, we could make better choices today. Just think how such knowledge might shape when to plant, contract cotton and buy/sell investments. It might also guide variety selection.

Alas, we don’t have 20/20 vision about future markets, weather, crop performance, natural disasters, etc. Therefore, we DIVERSIFY. We don’t plant all one variety. We don’t plant the entire crop in a single day or two days.

alabama cotton
Planting three to five different cotton varieties may help you identify the next “star” for your farm, says Alabama cotton specialist Steve Brown.

Most farms — excluding the small-acreage grower who relies on custom picking — should include three to five varieties in their mix. Yes, one or two choices may dominate, but including a few others may help you see the next “star” for your farm. And given who-knows-what will happen with weather, pests and whatever, one variety may surprise positively or negatively.

Companies continue to improve genetics and technology. The competition is keen. In your preferred technology offering, there are likely some very solid performers.

Planting dates also achieve diversification. At this point, no one knows if early, mid or late dates will be best. I can say early to mid-planting dates have far out performed later plantings in the past couple of years. Managing this year like we should have done last year assumes that this year’s environment and market will mimic 2019.

Because we don’t know that, we diversify. Assuming conditions allow, a sensibly spaced planting window adds to diversity … and obviously helps with harvest.

Mississippi brian pieralisi
Brian Pieralisi

As a former producer, I continue to review my mental checklist to prepare for another planting season. Did I replace the seal on the main folding arm? Did I assemble enough spare press wheels to keep on the service truck?

Lately, warm wet winters have become the new normal in the Mid-South, which presents challenges for growers attempting a timely planting.

If you were able to harvest and row up before the rain began, then you are in good shape. However, many cotton farmers harvested in the mud, leaving knee-deep ruts to disk and rows to reestablish. Farmers with prepared beds or cover-cropped acres should plan to terminate any green foliage three weeks prior to planting to increase chances of a good stand. If you have to contend with ruts, consider all things that go along with multiple trips across a field. I have seen a field go from too wet to work up to too dry to plant in a matter of days.

Most producers have made their 2020 variety selections and crop mix decisions. As you make final planting preparations, remember not to place all your eggs in one basket in terms of variety selection. Choose variety placement based on soil characteristics. Try to get to the bottom of any yield-limiting factors to avoid using inputs like irrigation or increased nitrogen rates to mitigate these issues.

Keep best management practices in mind for using multiple herbicide technologies within a single operation. This will help avoid off-target herbicide injury from drift, volatility and sprayer contamination. Good luck!

David Wright, Florida
David Wright,

A new season resets the bar for what we want to achieve. Farmers face challenges that are often weather-related but may include pests or equipment (planters, irrigation systems, pickers, etc.) Almost every farmer changes something whether it is varieties, fertility program, equipment, conversion to cover crops and conservation tillage, for example.

There is no best way to farm in all situations, but many things can be done to minimize crop risk. Some considerations are soil fertility and fall nematode tests to help determine fertility and if nematicides are necessary or if a seed treatment will be adequate. Because fields often have variable soil types, it’s important to choose the best cotton varieties for your area that yield consistently across low- and high-yielding environments.

Timely planting as well as timely nitrogen and growth regulator applications will help ensure success. However, the first step is establishing a good stand with uniform emergence. Including an effective seed treatment along with well-adjusted row openers/cleaners, crumblers and closing wheels can make a big difference in uniform planting depth and emergence.

Planter bounce caused by planting at too fast a speed can result in variable planting depth. Increased tension on planter down pressure springs can help reduce planter bounce in rough seedbeds and may allow slightly higher planting speeds while establishing uniform stands.

Keith Edmisten
Keith Edmisten
North Carolina

Dr. Guy Collins explained the new cottonseed testing program in North Carolina in last month’s column. Using the results from this program should help us achieve more consistent cotton stands. Growers need to realize that cottonseed companies are not producing widgets. They are producing a live organism. This means several factors will always result in variation among cottonseed lots.

Growers can use information generated by the North Carolia Department of Agriculture testing program to reduce the possibility of poor stands. They should also be aware that both standard and cool germ results are available from the seed company.

This is important for later-arriving seed where you need to plant before NCDA germination tests are available. Growers who find some of their seed lots have lower cool germ values should treat those seeds more carefully. Don’t plant too deeply (especially on soils prone to crusting), avoid planting lower-quality seed during less-than-favorable conditions, avoid in-furrow fertilizers and planting flat or in wetter-natured fields. Also consider increasing the planting rate.

Look for planting conditions at Using this tool, you can match cottonseed quality with planting conditions.

Hunter Frame
Hunter Frame

As Virginia producers move into burndown applications ahead of cotton planting in May, it’s imperative to start weed free. As herbicide-resistant weeds have increasingly become a problem, our burndown/preplant programs need to rely on herbicides with residual activity in the soil to remain weed free until the first postemergence herbicide application.

Consult an Extension weed scientist for recommendations for your specific soil types and weed complex to select the appropriate chemistries.

In addition to managing weeds mid- to late April, start terminating winter cover crops, such as cereal rye, winter wheat, crimson clover and hairy vetch. For the latter two cover crop species, termination should occur at peak bloom to minimize the amount of nitrogen “locked up” in the seed. Also, hairy vetch can become a weed, so timely termination will ensure minimum seed production for that cover crop.

With these two legume species, a large amount of nitrogen can be fixed and available to the following cotton crop. For example, a crimson clover/hairy vetch mix may accumulate 170-plus pounds of nitrogen per acre in the above-ground biomass.

The release pattern of nutrients from cover crops can vary and depends heavily on rainfall and soil temperatures for degradation. Adding cereal rye to the cover crop mix will slow decomposition of cover crop residues and provide a soil cover/mulch for added weed control.

However, cereal cover crops can increase the demand for nitrogen in the following cotton crop as high carbon:nitrogen ratios of residues result in immobilization of nitrogen, especially when there is a large cover crop biomass. Overall, using legume cover crops or cereal rye/legumes reduces the need for applied nitrogen. Lint yields with legumes receiving no nitrogen fertilization have been higher than cereal-rye-only cover crops with 120 pounds of applied nitrogen per acre.

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