Seth Byrd, Extension cotton specialist at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, says the 2021 season has been one of those years when if something can go wrong it will.
“We’ve had some weird issues come up,” he says. “Some years, we may have one of the problems; this year we had them all at once.”
Even so, he says the crop, estimated at about 500,000 acres, is promising as it nears season’s end and producers start thinking about harvest prep.
“Most of the issues we had will not affect harvest aid applications,” he says. “The biggest factor with harvest aids and how we approach harvest is that the crop is still a bit behind. I say that with bit of hesitation, however. A month ago, a lot of folks were saying we were two to four weeks behind. I thought maybe one or two. Today (August 25) after last week and hot, dry, weather through much of the month, most of the crop looks good with flowering near the terminal, with some fields still a bit behind.”
Oklahoma dryland, on-farm field trial. (Photo by Seth Byrd)
Later in the afternoon, after checking numerous cotton fields, Byrd updated his assessment of crop maturity.
“Not sure if it’s worth mentioning or not, but I think the major reason for concerns about maturity all year was that our crop just started fruiting higher up on the plant than normal,” he says. “So, not only did we have slow-growing conditions from May through early June, but I’m also consistently seeing our first fruiting branch occurring a node or two higher than normal for varieties I’ve evaluated in previous season.
“To me, this is the best explanation for why we’ve been concerned about maturity all year; this fruiting pattern has just shifted our whole fruiting window back. After looking at cotton all over the place today, I really do feel like we’ll be okay if September is kind to us.”
He said two scenarios could play out from now until producers put pickers or strippers in the field.
“One, if September weather is favorable, hopefully we can get to the point with the crop in an ideal window, 60% open, and we could have favorable conditions to apply harvest aids and put strippers or pickers in the field.
“Two, we could look at the forecast and it is bad, rough weather unfavorable for cotton to continue maturing on its own, and we start applying harvest aids at earlier than normal growth stages, say 50% open.
“Also, for those fields that are still behind in development now, we may not reach our harvest aid application window until later in the fall when we’re dealing with cooler weather.”
He says last year was such a case. “We had a cold snap in early September that slowed things down. It took forever to get the crop from a point where we applied harvest aid to harvest. The month of September was colder than normal. We could see that again this year and crop progress could slow down.”
Question of timing
He says harvest aid application often comes with timing questions. “Most producers do a good job of opening harvestable bolls; the bigger problem is going in earlier with a lot of green leaves still on the plants.
“If weather turns cooler or we apply earlier, we may apply higher rates of boll opener but still have to consider leaf. In that situation, we might want to increase rates or consider putting out a different mix or a different product.”
He says a lot of “Monday morning quarterbacking” goes on when producers question what they should have done.
“The truth is, weather dictates performance of harvest aids. If we get into a situation where we apply in cooler temperatures or earlier than normal, producers might want to adjust the mix based on what they need to open bolls and also to remove leaves. When it’s cooler, harvest aid activity is slower. Be attentive to conditions. Match harvest aid mix to weather.”
He says no new harvest aid products are recommended this year. “But we are looking at some different strategies.”
Conditioning the crop could be one. “That was not beneficial last year,” Byrd says. In our area, it might be this year.”
Conditioning involves applying a low rate of defoliant, at around 30% open, to knock leaves off. “In bushy, immature cotton, we can knock leaves off early, so when we make the traditional timing applications, we hope to get better coverage.”
He said the technique depends on prevailing weather and crop conditions. “Last year, much of the crop was not big and bushy, and there wasn’t a lot of benefit to conditioning, particularly when the crop was planted early. The cool September did not hurt that early-planted cotton as bad. This year, a lot of cotton has not started to senesce yet. We have a lot of leaf to remove.”
Conditioning could help out on the second application. “Producers will have to spray at least twice — to condition, then a second pass that includes a boll opener and likely an additional defoliant. Conditioning might fit for certain scenarios. Yield potential, crop condition, and weather forecast will dictate the need.
“Focus on harvest application timing as related to growth stage.” He says defoliation will be harder than opening bolls.
Byrd says producers had weed problems early in the season because of persistent rains but nothing that should affect harvest.
“Early weed problems seemed worse than usual because we had so much rain that put pressure on residuals. But folks were aware and expected the residual herbicides to beak. When fields dried up, they were able to make timely applications before the weeds got too big. The fields I’m seeing now on a regular basis are clean."
The Oklahoma crop looks good, Byrd says. “We had good boll retention. Recent boll shed comes from plants that have a full fruit load, so shedding is not from stress.
“We need a mild September, not down below 40 degrees on September 9 like last year. We were behind on heat units last year. An average September would do a lot of good. I hope we can avoid last year’s year cool spell and have an average freeze date to finish out cotton. The crop has a lot of potential if we can get there.”
Oklahoma acreage is down slightly from last year, Byrd adds. "But we had a good stand and not much abandonment. I think we have around a half-million acres.”