How Late Can I Plant Cotton? and How Should I Manage It? (Collins, Edmisten, Reisig)

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We’ve been getting calls from several growers who have some cotton acres left to plant and can’t get back in the field to finish, due to heavy recent rains. The insurance cutoff date for planting is today (May 25, 2017) with 1 percent deductions in coverage per day through May 31st. Planting on June 1st or later cannot be covered by insurance. With that said, several growers may attempt to plant their remaining acres. Obviously, there aren’t many growers that can continue planting today, due to saturated soils and standing water, but the concern now is their ability to plant before June 1st, with additional rain likely in the forecast. This leads to the primary question we’ve been getting: “What is the latest that I can possibly plant cotton?”

This is a difficult question to answer and it depends on the amount of risk that a grower can afford to take. First, consider the percentage of your total cotton acres that are comprised of unplanted acres to date. For example, if a 1000-acre cotton grower has 50 acres left to plant (5 percent of their total acres), this would be a scenario of relatively low risk. In other words, if the late-planted acres don’t result in acceptable yields, this scenario may not necessarily present a significant risk. There are certainly other factors that weigh in to how much risk a grower can handle (debt for example) with late planted cotton, that we cannot address here, and that decision is for each individual grower to make. If the same 1000-acre grower has 500 acres left to plant (50 percent of their total acres), this is naturally a considerably higher risk. Additionally, growers must consider the alternative crops they can plant at this time, and if they are competitive in those alternative crops. Also, growers need to consider whether or not they can return their cotton seed….in many cases, seed treated downstream may not be returned, however growers can still decide if they want to plant it this year, or perhaps keep it in storage for next year (with consideration given to potential reductions in germination and seed treatment efficacy).

Naturally, there is risk in planting late, but it is still possible to achieve acceptable yields (within 10 percent of optimum for the year), depending on timeliness of management and the weather that each year holds. Risks increase with each day you plant after the insurance cutoff date. The insurance cutoff dates are there for a reason, and these dates generally reflect and align with multi-year planting date research that Dr. Edmisten has conducted. We do not suggest nor guarantee that late-planted cotton will yield as good as cotton planted during the normal recommended planting window, however it is possible to achieve acceptable yields through June 5th or so in most years, depending on the year (weather during the summer and fall) and how timely a grower can be with management. Since planting on June 1st or beyond is not covered by insurance, we do not recommend growers to continue planting cotton beyond May 31st, however we will provide some tips that may help you if you do decide to continue planting. There is no magic date that applies to every grower in every year to which cotton should not be planted, however the risk is likely too high past the first week of June for all growers in NC.

Dr. Edmisten has shown his planting date research at several winter meetings over the past few years, and basically, his work illustrates that (over several years) optimal yields can be achieved when planting between late April and May 25th. When planting beyond June 1st, yields become erratic and more variable, and yield potential becomes more dependent on weather during a particular year. For example, late planting may not result in acceptable yields when the summer is wet with several cloudy days, if insects are problematic and not properly controlled, and especially if rains prevent growers from conducting timely PGR or insecticide sprays. This may be even more problematic when the fall is cool and cloudy, especially with an early frost. In such years, retention of earlier set bolls will likely be poor, due to untimely insect sprays, rank growth, cloudy days, and slow maturity of upper bolls in the fall, to the point that some upper bolls wont mature in time. However, if the summer consists of sunny days, timely rains but not excessive rains that delay field work, low insect pressure, and when followed by warm sunny days in the fall with a normal to late frost, later planted cotton can still achieve acceptable yields, with a few qualifiers. Dry summers, although not ideal, can also accelerate maturity. There are other exceptions…..During 2016 for example, some cotton planted in early June yielded as good as earlier planted cotton (or resulted in acceptable yields by some growers’ standards), but this only occurred due to the adverse impacts that Hermine and Matthew had on earlier planted cotton. Every year is different, therefore growers must consider their individual situations, and how much risk they can afford when making these decisions.

Say you’ve made the decision to continue planting cotton beyond the insurance date. What can you do at this point to increase your chances of achieving acceptable yields? Below are a few tips:

  1. Plant as early as you can get back into your fields. Don’t delay if you have the choice. We will likely have good moisture and temperatures, but don’t let that moisture expire. We need to establish good stands as quickly as possible.
  2. Increase seeding rates:  This depends on the seeding rate you have been planting up to this point. If you have been planting 46000-47000 seed per acre, you probably don’t need to adjust much. If you have been planting 43500 seed per acre or less, you may want to increase your seeding rates to 46000-47000 seed per acre to influence earliness. It is also important to realize that late planted cotton is even more sensitive to skippy stands, and we cant rely on outer position bolls or vegetative bolls to compensate for skips, like we can for earlier planted cotton.
  3. Do you need to switch to an earlier maturing variety?….that depends. Yes, the focus should be on managing for earliness but not at the expense of yield. Growers should continue to match variety performance with a particular environment (yield potential of various fields, sandy vs heavy soils, irrigated vs dryland, etc), and when possible, switch to earlier varieties if those varieties are suitable for that particular environment. Additionally, all varieties should be managed for earliness…..in other words, some may require more timely PGR management than others. Knowing a varieties growth characteristics will be important. However, growers should not switch to early varieties JUST for the sake of earliness if a variety is not competitive in a particular environment. For example, there was a variety in our trials last year that was very early maturing but was only competitive when there was 3-bale yield potential or higher….it was not a competitive variety in lower-yielding environments such as sandy soils that are likely to encounter drought stress. If some of the more full-season varieties are your only option that is suitable for certain fields, you need to manage them for earliness to the best of your ability. The good news is that there are a few varieties that are relatively early maturing that have performed competitively across a number of environments in our trials over the past couple of years.
  4. BE TIMELY. Be very timely on everything from here on out. Avoid excessive fertility. When planting cotton late, you lose to luxury to be late on several of your management practices, even late by a couple of days. Your ultimate goal here is to retain as many earlier set bolls as possible. Be timely with thrips sprays….this is always important but late-planted cotton is more sensitive to untimely sprays. Be timely with plant bug sprays….this is also always important but late-planted cotton is ultra-sensitive to untimely sprays. Remember, we need to retain as many of these earlier set squares/bolls as possible in order to achieve acceptable yields. Be timely with bollworm sprays, if they reach damaging levels later during the summer. Be timely with PGRs….We never want to have excessively rank growth, but cotton planted on May 1st may not be penalized much (if at all) if cotton is a little on the tall side (45 inches or so as a maximum) at the end of the year. Late-planted cotton however may not have time to fully develop upper bolls if allowed to grow somewhat tall whereas earlier planted cotton would, and therefore should be closer to 36-38 inches tall at the end of the year. Just to be clear, timely PGR management doesn’t necessarily mean aggressive. Any PGR efforts should be focused on retaining earlier-set lower bolls, but not at the expense of yield. We would not recommend aggressive PGR treatment if the plant isn’t likely to result in rank growth and thereby doesn’t need aggressive PGR treatment (if dry weather persists for example), however if timely rains result in more rapid growth, you cannot afford any delays in maturity that result from rank growth due to late or untimely PGR sprays. With regard to plant bugs, these pests have become more serious over the last few years, and can clearly have a significant impact on yields and maturity if allowed to reach damaging levels unchecked. This pest can go unnoticed and reach economic thresholds rather quickly, and the only way to know is by thorough and frequent scouting. Additionally, if thresholds are reached, it is critically important to react quickly and spray accordingly. Timeliness of sequential sprays is also important. Just because you may have treated for plant bugs recently doesn’t mean that you won’t have to do it again for a while. In other words, these insects can easily and quickly re-invade fields to the point of economic thresholds in a rather short time frame, even within a few days, so you might have to tighten up your scouting intervals to a couple times per week. Dr. Reisig has shared some interesting research regarding the timeliness of sequential applications for plant bugs, which has shown that delaying the second application by only a day or two can result in significant yield penalties. Ultimately, our reaction time to economic thresholds of plant bugs needs to be quick, as well as secondary sprays, in order to achieve optimal yields for all cotton, and is more important in achieving acceptable yields in late-planted cotton.
  5. Avoid spending money on unproven inputs, in other words, stick with the basics and do them timely. You can’t afford to forgo good basic weed control, insect control, fertilty and growth regulator use, but avoid excess fertility and other “luxury” inputs to control costs