Even though the 2019 cotton harvest is not complete, it is already time to start thinking about the 2020 cotton season.
Darrin Dodds, Mississippi State University Extension cotton specialist and department head for Plant and Soil Sciences, recommends farmers keep a few things in mind when it comes to cotton management for 2020, especially fertility and variety.
Soil sampling and variety performance
"My number one tip is, if a grower is not soil sampling or hasn't soil sampled in a while, it would benefit him/her to pull samples just to get an idea of what soil fertility looks like," Dodds said. "Then make fertilizer applications as called for by those soil samples.
"The second thing I would encourage people to do is not rush into booking a variety."
Dodds suggests spending time looking at variety performance data and making sure to select the best variety for each farm.
"You cannot underestimate the cost of putting the wrong variety in the wrong spot," he said. "There are all kinds of data to look at to find the right variety per farm, so spend some time looking at variety performance data. Also, don't necessarily plant one variety on two-thirds of your acres."
Dodds adds that pest management often drives profit potential.
"You don't really know, by and large, especially from an insect standpoint, what pest you'll have or how bad the pressure will be. Odds are, you'll have some plant bugs, but who knows when they're going to come or how bad they're going to be, which makes it difficult to plan for budget-wise. Another profit factor is weed control. However, if a farmer has been farming his land a long time and knows what the weed problems usually are, he can plan a budget a little bit better," Dodds said.
Winter is the prime time to work on equipment, research varieties, and get a farm budget in order for the next growing season.
Cutting back nitrogen
"When we start planting fields, that's when conversations come up about how much nitrogen we are going to put out," he said. "I encourage people to cut nitrogen rates back a little if they still have varieties that get too tall, trouble slowing the growth with plant growth regulators, or if their cotton is hard to defoliate."
Cutting back on nitrogen helps in a few different ways: it saves money on nitrogen fertilizer, makes the height a little bit easier to manage with plant growth regulators, and at the end of the year, it will make it a lot easier getting the leaves off the plant come harvest time.
Dodds said another big take-home is to determine if you have a compaction layer in the soil profile.
"There's a number of ways to find this out, but if you do have a hardpan or a compaction layer, do something to alleviate that," he said. "If you have a hardpan, the roots aren’t going to grow too deep, and if the hardpan is quite shallow, it limits your rooting zone, water uptake, and nutrients that plant can get, which ultimately hurts you in terms of plant growth and yield.
"Lastly, related to fertility, evaluate your soil pH. If it is low, fall would be the time to get lime in fields to bring the pH back up to where it needs to be. I like to see pH levels at around the 6 to 6.5 range. If you start getting to 5 to 5.2 on a pH scale, you will see restricted root growth. Anything that restricts the growth of the roots is never good."
Currently, land preparation is the name of the game, but off and on rain is making that difficult, especially for farmers who have yet to complete harvest.
"Some farmers have fields rutted up because they have harvest equipment and tractors still in the fields, trying to finish up harvest," Dodds said. "The next big thing after farmers get the crop out of the field is to prepare the land. Afterward, the land sits tight until spring.
"We're kind of backed up against a wall right now, though, because of the weather. We're getting pickers across the field as best we can to get the crop out, but it's going to be hard. If I had to guess, there will not be a tremendous amount of more land preparation this fall because of soil conditions. There may be some hope. If it turns dry for another three or four weeks, we can get it all done."