Block and tackle before razzle dazzle. Like football, successful cotton production depends on the basics. “I once played on a football team where we constantly practiced trick plays,” says Arkansas Extension cotton specialist Bill Robertson. “We didn’t win many games, so coach finally said, ‘We got to go back to the basics.’ After we began blocking and tackling well, then we could start executing some of those fancy plays.
“In producing cotton, we’ve got to make sure we’re using good technique and procedure and getting the most bang for our buck. Once we’re doing that, then we can try a few things to try to enhance yield. But we first have to continue doing the basics, such as putting out adequate amounts of fertilizer in the soil. For example, I see leaves falling off prematurely in fields where growers had cut back on their potash. Don’t cut back on fertilizer on the front end. If we get into a bind — we have too much rain and lose too much nitrogen and other nutrients — then we can supplement our nutritional needs.”
In November, the past season is fresh on the grower’s mind, so now is a great time to evaluate inputs and practices for the next season. Realistic yield goals are needed to accomplish that.
“When we sit down to do a budget, we can’t use our record yields for our yield goals to determine how much money we can spend on the crop,” Robertson says. “Again, cover the basics — base your budget on realistic yield expectations.
“November is also a great time for Mid-South cotton growers to sit back and look at the whole picture. Things are going to remain tight, and many growers will have trouble paying all their bills. And I don’t see anything improving for next year. So we need to step back and identify the practices and inputs that put money in our pockets.”
The outlook for cotton is not rosy right now. Arkansas is expected to harvest a little over 200,000 acres in 2015. “However, we’ve gone through cycles exactly like this in the past when acreage has dropped and later rebounded,” Robertson says. “In the early 1980s, Arkansas dropped to a little over 300,000 cotton acres and later bounced back to over a million acres.
“Cotton will bounce back. Many growers are looking long-term down the road, keeping a foot in the door by holding onto their cotton equipment so they’ll be in a good position when cotton comes back.”
Robertson can be contacted at [email protected]
Evaluating varietal performance. November is a great time to evaluate cotton varieties. In addition to assessing how well varieties performed in yield and fiber quality this past season, check university official variety trial (OVT) results, says North Carolina Extension cotton specialist Keith Edmisten.
“Our state expanded its on-farm large plot program and OVT program, providing more locations with different soil types,” Edmisten says. “That data will help growers begin the process of making some of their varietal choices for next season. Matching the correct variety with the soil type can make a huge yield difference. It varies by year, but it can mean a 200- to 300-pound difference.
“Since we had a very early crop in 2015, our OVT and on-farm variety data will be available earlier this year than normal. We expect it will be available in November.”
This month also offers cotton growers an opportunity to plant a cover crop. Most North Carolina growers use wheat as a cover crop, primarily because of the availability and price of wheat seed.
“The USDA National Resource Conservation Service is promoting a pre-blend mix of seven different species,” Edmisten adds. “Cotton growers utilizing mixtures for a soil nitrogen benefit need to be sure a blend contains enough legume seeds. Poorly distributed legume stands can lead to either excess N or N deficiencies in parts of a field. For a legume, we mostly plant crimson clover or vetch; some growers use Austrian winter pea.”
At this time Southeast cotton growers can also start soil sampling and planning for 2016. With the price outlook for cotton and other commodities, growers probably will not be ready at this time to make hard decisions, but they can make preliminary plans for next season.
“Part of the early planning for 2016 is determining where you will rotate crops,” Edmisten says. “With the loss of Temik, good rotations are more important than ever before in controlling nematodes.”
Edmisten can be contacted at [email protected]
Minimize quality discounts. By November, most of the west Texas cotton crop is defoliated and desiccated by harvest aids or a freeze; however, growers still need to do what they can to minimize the leaf grades and other quality discounts.
Cotton farmers are always at the mercy of Mother Nature, and harvest-time is no exception. Timely harvest is probably one of the biggest factors in preserving quality length, strength, and color, but getting into a hurry can lead to fiber quality problems. Growers can work with the gins to help preserve fiber quality, says Texas Extension cotton specialist Gaylon Morgan.
“More round module strippers and pickers are being adopted by Southwest growers,” Morgan says. “The round modules help preserve lint quality in many ways — less cotton is exposed to the elements on the turn row and gin yard. However, producers and gins need to communicate about ways to prevent the wrap from entering the ginning process and causing contamination in the ginned bale.”
After harvesting, multiple management practices should be implemented in preparation for 2016. Growers need to soil sample their fields, which is more critical than ever in tight economic times. Sampling enables cotton growers to determine the nutrient levels in their fields and more accurately apply a balanced nutrient program in the fall or the spring.
“After multiple years of drought, in many situations we have nitrogen accumulation in our soil profile, and this nitrogen is plant-available and equates to spending less money on nitrogen fertilizer,” Morgan says.
Several Southwest growers are experimenting with variable rate application, which has the potential to save money on fertilizer, particularly lime. On fields that have variabilities in pH, variable application of lime has proven to be economic. “We often have high pH soils, so we usually do not have a lot of lime going out anyway,” Morgan adds.
Morgan urges Texas cotton growers to stay on top of glyphosate-resistant pigweed, which is prevalent throughout the state now. Whether following cotton or grains harvest, controlling pigweed following the crop harvest using either steel or herbicide is important to reduce pigweed contributions to the soil seedbank — and future problems.
“Pigweed can be suppressed with some harvest aids, including paraquat and many of the PPOs, such as Sharpen, ET X and Display, especially in west Texas where harvest aids are used at much higher rates,” he says. “Also in the late winter and early spring, preplant incorporated herbicides need to be included to provide a barrier of protection against the early flushes of pigweeds, followed by preplant burndown herbicides. The most important management strategy is to start the season weed-free, especially with glyphosate-resistant pigweeds.”
Morgan can be contacted at [email protected]