cotton picker

Rethinking cotton management in a poor market

Cotton research overview for Mid-South. Rethinking aspects of managing a cotton crop.  

The current state of the cotton market is not prompting producers to plant more of the crop. For the acres that remain, Darrin Dodds and colleagues have some suggestions on how to make the bottom line a bit blacker.

“I thought it would be prudent to talk to you about the solutions we’re trying to provide for you in Mississippi and beyond,” said the Mississippi State University Extension cotton specialist at the recent ACP-Cotton Foundation joint meeting in New Orleans. “At the end of the day, it’s a 65-cent cotton market and what we’re trying to do is make more cotton with less money and improve profit margins.

“When commodity markets are down as a whole like they are, one of the first places producers want to start cutting is in fertility.”

To illustrate the harm this can lead to, Dodds recounted a revealing episode last September. “After a visit in Arkansas, I got a phone call after crossing the river in Helena. He said, ‘The leaves are falling off my whole field. What is going on? Would you mind stopping to have a look?’

“I stopped and the producer took me over by the tree line. The cotton looked bad but it could have looked a lot worse. We walked around the field and looked some more and I started scratching my head wondering what I’d say to sound halfway intelligent.

“Finally, the producer said, ‘if you go over to the other side of the field there’s a green spot that’s about 100 yards long.’ Well, anytime you’re looking at a problem and there’s a pattern, go to that pattern to help figure out what’s going on.”

The pair drove to the spot. “Sure enough, there were 12 rows to the row and it was very green. I instantly asked ‘what is different about this spot?’ Last year, it turned the air system on his planter malfunctioned and the 100 yards didn’t get planted.”

That led Dodds to believe there were some potash issues in the field. “We pulled some soil samples out of the good and bad. Where it was bad the potash numbers were about 184 – low for our system. For the good, the number was 286 but the pH was a bit low.

“The point is: this is how close some folks are cutting it with fertility. We’re trying to save money but one year’s difference can make that big of a difference.”

Nutrients and roots

Look at how many nutrients are removed by a crop, said Dodds.

“In the Delta, we need a cotton crop at about 1,500 pounds to make it work. ... Look at the total uptake of potassium at 155 pounds. Some of that is coming back in our stalks, burrs and leaves.

“But the overriding question is: how quickly is that made available to the subsequent crop, if ever? I don’t know if anyone can answer that but the point is we’re pulling 155 pounds in a 1,500-pound crop but our typical rate – not just in Mississippi but in a lot of states – is about 150 pounds of muriate potash.

“That leads to the issues seen in the last six to eight years including spots on the leaves, late-season deficiencies. Even in a 65-cent cotton market, if I’m looking to save money, fertility isn’t the place I’m going to do it.”

Most of the time, the first thing Dodds does when walking into a problem field is pull a cotton plant up. “If we don’t have a root system under that plant, you don’t have a healthy plant.”

This year highlighted that. “In Mississippi and other Mid-South states, we planted in about 10 days and it stayed wet for three solid weeks. What happened? Our crop shallow-rooted because it didn’t have to go looking for water. If you pull up plants in the Delta, right now, you’ll see a bunch of feeder roots a short tap root. We were just so wet early.

“Look at the roots and if you need to do something to get them right, I suggest you do it. Maybe you need to break up a hardpan. A lot of people don’t want to use a ripper because it uses a lot of diesel fuel and time. But if you have a hardpan and nematodes on top of that, it’s a double-whammy from the start.”

Plant bugs

Plant bugs are probably Mid-South cotton’s chief nemesis. “I know producers that have made nine applications for plant bugs. Nine shots in a 65 cent cotton market? You’re probably not thinking about growing cotton in 2016.”

With this in mind, Dodds and his research counterparts across the Mid-South got together and put together a set of best management practices to help deal with the pest.

“One of the first thing we noticed is plant bugs, for whatever reason, tend not to like hairy cotton. The way we figured this out is via another project where we planted Stoneville 5288. 5288 is very hairy – like a velvet Elvis. Well, we go to check on our plots and there weren’t nearly as many plant bugs on 5288 as on other varieties.”

A graduate student working with Mississippi entomologist Angus Catchot was looking at planting dates and varieties. “We figured out if we plant early, and plant an early-maturing variety, we reduce the window of time where the plants are susceptible to plant bugs.

“So, say there is a mid-April planting date, an early-May planting date, a mid-May planting dates and a late-May planting date. Once we get past the early-May window and get into mid- or late-May, we go from three or four applications for plant bugs to six, seven, or more. If the weather will allow, we need to get the crop in as early as we can.”

What about the use of Diamond?

“When it first came on the market, the entomologists were really trying to figure it out. Sometimes it looked great and sometimes it didn’t look very good, at all. They finally figured out it’s essentially a nymph product – you’re not taking out the adults.”

Jeff Gore, Mississippi Extension entomologist, did some work on this. “Plots were no Diamond, Diamond at third week of flowering, Diamond at first bloom versus Diamond at third week of square. There were yield increases every time there was an application earlier in the season. The reason is you’re knocking the nymphs out and hopefully reducing the pressures for the rest of the year.”

Nitrogen rates, suggestions

How much impact do nitrogen rates have on plant bug problems?

“For silt-loam soils in Mississippi, our nitrogen application rate is around 120 pounds. There are some producers that put out 140 to 150 pounds. In the hills, we’re putting out closer to 100 pounds.

“If you look at this, where we put out 80 pounds versus 120 pounds in Delta silt-loams, not only do we maximize yields at 80 pounds but we cut down our sprayings required for plant bugs.”

Dodds offered cotton producers these suggestions:

  • Plant an early-maturing, hairy leaf variety.
  • If possible, plant early.
  • Work some Diamond into your program.
  • Cut the nitrogen rate a bit.

“All those things individually appear to have an impact on our plant bug problems. Doing this in the Delta cut our plant bug applications in half.” However, “in the hills, we actually made more applications where these BMPs were put in place.”

TAGS: Management
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