Farm Progress

Variety selection, fertility, seeding rate critical for cotton managementBeware too much nitrogen in cottonOklahoma making high quality cotton 

Ron Smith 1, Senior Content Director

April 1, 2016

6 Min Read
<p>Danny Davis, Elk city, Okla., made more than 1,200 pounds per acre average in OSU dryland cotton variety trials last year. Grade was also extremely good.</p>

Randy Boman can’t help but praise Oklahoma cotton growers for last year’s crop. “Fiber quality was amazing,” the Oklahoma State University Extension state cotton lead said at the annual Carnegie Cooperative Cotton Conference at Carnegie, Okla.

Color, leaf, and bark grades were all good, he says, due in large part to increased use of pickers for harvesting. He says 43 percent of the cotton graded 37 or longer staple, and 25 percent graded 36 staple. “Average strength, 31.3, was the best quality classed at Abilene.”

Good weather also helped with grade and yield — “2015 came with the best crop production conditions since 2010,” Boman says. “We had above average precipitation in April and May and into June. In September, heat unit accumulation was 35 percent above our long-time average.”

Heavy rains and saturated soils also created an ideal situation to recharge reservoirs. “Lake Lugert is at about 86 percent of capacity,” he says. “It had dropped below 10 percent before last spring.”


Even some dryland farmers made excellent yields, Boman said, pointing to Danny Davis, Elk city, Okla., who was in the audience, as a prime example.

“Danny made more than 1,200 pounds per acre average in our dryland cotton variety trial. That just shows what we can do with cotton in Oklahoma when we get a little rain. A 2.5-bale dryland yield, with nearly 38 staple and 32 average strength, represents an outstanding crop.”

But producers can’t depend on better-than-average weather every year. “Don’t count on these conditions,” he cautions. “The last two years have been good to a lot of producers; even in 2014, where we had water, yields were outstanding. But we will get back to normal — and that means some areas will experience below normal conditions.”

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Boman credits variety selection with a lot of cotton’s success the past two years. “Our growers have done a good job of selecting the best varieties. The goal is to find a complete variety package (traits, yield, disease tolerance, fiber quality) that reduces production risk. We have a lot of good varieties with a lot of good traits, and we are not seeing a lot of difference in performance in variety trials. That’s a good thing.”


He says variety selection decisions to reduce production risks should include:

  • Agronomy — Yield stability under all water regimes. Quality, storm resistance, plant type. Maintain diverse herbicide programs and/or cultivation to manage weed resistance.

  • Plant Pathology — Knowing the disease or nematode species in a particular field is vitally important. (RKN, Fusarium, Verticillium and bacterial blight resistance, tolerance or immunity).

  • Entomology—Insect resistance for lepidopteran pests. (Bollgard II, WideStrike, TwinLink, and WideStrike 3).

Producers need the new herbicide traits, Boman says: seed packages that include multiple-stacked traits — glyphosate, glufosinate, Bt, dicamba, and 2,4-D. Seed technology that includes dicamba and 2,4-D tolerance is available, but the herbicide products that accompany those varieties still await  EPA approval. It’s expected the herbicides will be available in 2017, but there is hope for a ruling in time for the 2016 season.

Haley Nabors, Dow AgroSciences, who presented a spray pattern demonstration during the Carnegie conference, says the Enlist Duo technology has been approved in corn and soybeans for Oklahoma, so a label for cotton “should be easy when EPA gets to it. We think it will be 2017 before we get the full package in cotton.”


Growers also need to pay attention to disease issues, Boman says. “Bacterial blight is not a big deal in Oklahoma — unless it happens to you. Plants can lose a lot of leaves, and then it moves into the bolls, and that’s not a good thing. If growers know they have a field history of this disease, they need to pay attention to it.”

He offers other production tips for 2016 planting, a season in which growers may be looking for ways to improve efficiency without sacrificing yield and quality.

“Achieving an adequate stand is the first objective in cotton production. We have new, improved planters that provide excellent down-the-row seed placement for proper spacing. Planters also have excellent vertical control to place seed at the proper depth.” With the cost of cotton seed and the current low price for cotton, seeding rate also deserves attention, he says.

“Avoid extremely early planting. The optimum plant population for 40-inch rows is around 2 to 4 plants per foot of row. So, what seeding rate do you use to get there? Target the lower end for dryland. Target the higher end for irrigated. What percent of seed planted will make it to harvest? The planter and the seed matter. Growers must have faith in the planter settings, as well as the seed quality. Agronomically, it’s difficult to justify planting less than 2 seed per foot of row in dryland production.”

Seeding rate trials across several locations and years indicate that from two-thirds to three-fourths of the seed dropped at planting will produce a plant that is there at harvest time, Boman says, but “weather could make a difference.”


Growers may request cool seed germination information from the seed company, he says, and recommends that they check the Plains Cotton Growers Seed Cost Calculator to help decide which seed package to plant. “The data are based on base seed treatments, not upgraded or premium seed treatments.” The calculator is available at

Growers also need to look at fertility, especially nitrogen, Boman says. “Annual deep soil sampling for nitrogen should be routine, partly because of the potential for excess nitrogen, which increases cost as well as posing production problems such as:

  • Increased Verticillium wilt disease.

  • Increased cotton aphid populations.

  • Increased plant growth and plant growth regulator need.

  • Delayed maturity.

  • Challenge for harvest aid performance.

  • Ultimately negatively affect fiber quality — micronaire, and possibly bark and leaf grade.

  • Cotton production losses, extremely high expenses or both.

“I see more cotton fields with too much nitrogen rather than too little,” he says. “One bale of cotton requires about 50 pounds of nitrogen. Some of that demand may be met with residual nitrogen (NO3) in the soil and irrigation water, so those sources should be tested and accounted for in the nitrogen fertilizer application.”


Fertility cost cutting may be a tricky prospect, Boman says. “In my opinion, the order of importance for most fields that have had a good fertilization program over the past few years would be: Nitrogen is the most important, but check the soil. Phosphorus may be high, but check the soil to make certain. Potassium also may be high, but a soil test is necessary. (Definitely cut here if the soil test indicated very high amounts of potassium. Many soils are high enough in potassium to produce high yields.) Zinc, check the soil. I have found deficiencies in some fields.”

Foliar fertilization may be justified in cases where in-season deficiencies appear, he says. “I have seen dryland cotton yields double when zinc deficiency is corrected with extremely timely foliar application — but timing is very critical. 

However, the expense of supplemental nutrition on a healthy crop is hard to justify, he says. “Texas studies also have not shown a profitable response to supplemental nutrition to a healthy crop, and that seems to hold beltwide. The first nutrient priority is soil fertility.”

Faced with low prices and uncertain climate conditions, cotton farmers should gather as much information as possible to help make production decisions, Boman says. He recommends the South Plains Profitability software program, developed by Texas AgriLife Extension Economist Jackie Smith, Lubbock, through funding by the Texas Cotton Incorporated State Support Committee. “Multiple crops are included in the program,” he says. It’s available at

About the Author(s)

Ron Smith 1

Senior Content Director, Farm Press/Farm Progress

Ron Smith has spent more than 40 years covering Sunbelt agriculture. Ron began his career in agricultural journalism as an Experiment Station and Extension editor at Clemson University, where he earned a Masters Degree in English in 1975. He served as associate editor for Southeast Farm Press from 1978 through 1989. In 1990, Smith helped launch Southern Turf Management Magazine and served as editor. He also helped launch two other regional Turf and Landscape publications and launched and edited Florida Grove and Vegetable Management for the Farm Press Group. Within two years of launch, the turf magazines were well-respected, award-winning publications. Ron has received numerous awards for writing and photography in both agriculture and landscape journalism. He is past president of The Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association and was chosen as the first media representative to the University of Georgia College of Agriculture Advisory Board. He was named Communicator of the Year for the Metropolitan Atlanta Agricultural Communicators Association. More recently, he was awarded the Norman Borlaug Lifetime Achievement Award by the Texas Plant Protection Association. Smith also worked in public relations, specializing in media relations for agricultural companies. Ron lives with his wife Pat in Johnson City, Tenn. They have two grown children, Stacey and Nick, and three grandsons, Aaron, Hunter and Walker.

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