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Managing early cotton to spread storm risk

Cotton specialists developing recommendations to help growers better spread risk against tropical storm damage.

Brad Haire, Executive Editor

September 10, 2019

There’s not much a cotton grower can do about a hurricane except try not to have the whole crop vulnerable to be taken by one. 

“We've lost in Georgia a significant amount of money in the past three years due to hurricanes, and that's not something we typically deal with in cotton. But you know, if it happens three years in a row, who's to think it won't happen a fourth year,” said Jared Whitaker, University of Georgia Extension cotton agronomist, in this video interview taken Sept. 6 at the UGA Cotton and Peanut Research Field Day.

Georgia is blessed with a long growing season, and cotton growers take advantage, typically stretching out planting from May until mid-June, which means cotton maturity and harvest usually happens about the time hurricane season heats up in the region.

But planting more cotton earlier, such as in April, more intensively managing it for optimal yields and getting harvest started in August can better spread risk before hurricane season kicks into its highest gears and threat.

“There are several things we can do on the front end of the season and really not lose a whole lot of yield potential that can get us earlier than we typically have been,” he said. “Of course, planting dates is the first one, right? We have a long planting window, and, of course cotton planted in April is going to be ready before cotton planted in June."

The UGA Cotton Team, he said, started studies this season to help develop recommendations and answer questions for growers who want to get more cotton started earlier and reach optimal yields with it.

Whitaker harvested April-planted cotton test plots the last week in August. “If you think about in general, we don't pick cotton in August unless it's bad cotton. This wasn’t bad cotton. It wasn't burnup, dryland cotton. This was full-season, fully irrigated cotton that I don't think we've shorted that much on,” he said.

Variety choice is important. Some varieties mature faster than others. Which ones will work better for an early full-season crop?

“Seeding rates and plant population ultimately play a role, too. The bigger the plant and the more space between those plants, the longer it takes for that crop to mature. So, by planting a thicker stand, we think we can speed up that early crop if needed. Plant growth regulators are another consideration, controlling that vegetative growth can really help with maturity and again speed the crop along,” he said.

Understanding defoliation and timely irrigation strategies, or not missing a watering, can help bolster yield potential and quality, he said.

“Realistically in Georgia, most of our cotton farmers are peanut farmers and we know how important it is to dig that peanut crop at the right time. We're going to work around peanuts. And in cotton, we're blessed enough that cotton can stay in the field and deal with it. From a practical standpoint, we can do some things a little bit differently or better and have some of the cotton crop ready before peanut harvest starts,” he said.

By far, the most damage in recent memory to Georgia’s cotton crop came last year on Oct. 11 when Hurricane Michael came through very mature, ready-to-harvest cotton fields and caused an estimated $600 million loss to Georgia cotton growers alone, according to UGA Extension estimates.

But getting ready and planted early has its own weather challenges. Georgia’s planting season this year was difficult with heavy rains complicating field prep and planting in March and early April. Still, Georgia cotton growers planted more acres early this year, according to data collected by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Southern Field Office.

About 12 percent of intended cotton acres were planted by the end of April, about 5 percent more than the five-year average for the same time.  By mid-May, 42 percent of the crop was planted, about 10 percent more than the five-year average for the same time.

May weather wasn’t cooperative, either, this year. Georgia set heat records throughout May with triple-digit temperatures with little rain in the major cotton growing regions of the state, which made good cotton stands and peanut stands difficult to establish.

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