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Timing Is Crucial For Young Seedlings

By Tommy Horton
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What is the magic watchword for planting this year’s cotton crop and protecting those young seedlings? Plain and’s timing. Knowing when soil temperatures are ideal (between 62 and 65 degrees) and finding the perfect window to plant the seed cannot be emphasized enough these days.

You would think that this might be an easy task for an experienced farmer. But every crop season is different and necessitates being flexible. What seems to change planting strategies are forces that are completely out of a farmer’s hands – like unusual weather conditions.

A quick look at the Cotton Belt’s different production regions reflects the varying approaches to this important part of the production season. For example, a mild winter and warm spring in 2012 tempted many Mid-South and Southeast farmers to plant as much as a month early to take advantage of favorable weather conditions. In many cases, everything worked out well.

In the drought-stricken Southwest, it was a hit-or-miss proposition. Some areas of South Texas received timely rains and delivered excellent yields. Meanwhile, other parts of the state didn’t fare as well and never had enough soil moisture to produce a dryland crop at all or a below-average irrigated crop.

Back To Basics

As many agronomists have recommended, it never hurts to go back to basics when it comes to timely plant-ing and protection of seedlings. In the quest to gain an early start on the crop season, some producers may want to review the best time to plant.

Texas Extension cotton specialist Gaylon Morgan, who is based at College Station, Texas, in the southeastern part of the state, says it’s always a good idea for a producer to acquire the cool and warm germination test data – and then use this information to make a management decision on which variety to plant first.

“It is my understanding that all the major seed companies will provide this information through the distributor and on to the producer, if you know the seed lot,” says Morgan. “If a producer has to plant early, he should be looking for a variety with a higher cool/warm vigor test.”

Morgan says many producers make the mistake of trying to plant earlier than the optimum recommendation for good early season growth. Typically, producers are pushing the earliness envelope because they have large acreages to plant or are chasing a narrow window of planting moisture. Also, there are situations where seed is planted too deep trying to reach adequate soil moisture. That scenario never gives the cotton plant a chance to grow off as well as it should.

Early Germination Is A Plus

Morgan says research shows that the quicker the seedling comes out of the ground, the higher the yield potential. It also might sound insignificant but Morgan believes a wise investment for any farmer is a small thermometer to test soil temperatures and the use of local weather station data.

He says it is time well spent when a farmer can regularly test the soil temperature at a depth no deeper than four inches. While producers in other regions might deal with excessive cool and rainy conditions prior to planting, the opposite is true in Texas where drought persists. In many regions of the state, producers still plant on beds.

“Obviously, farmers who plant on beds have the potential to knock those beds down and plant into moisture,” says Morgan. “If planting on a flat field, there isn’t much you can do except plant deeper and hope that you don’t receive a big rainfall event immediately afterwards.”

Although it might seem elementary, Morgan says seedling health depends on optimum planting dates, good seed quality and warm soil temperatures. Beyond those parameters, it boils down to regional differences in cotton production environments across the Belt and weather conditions.

“This is my message to farmers,” says the Texas Extension cotton specialist. “Don’t get too far away from the basics. Some of the other things we can’t control, but we can control when we put the seed into the ground and the quality of seed planted.”

Morgan also says soil types should be considered when selecting the pre-emergent herbicide and residual herbicide application rates. He says producers should be careful to use the labeled application rates and recommended application methods.

“We need these pre-emergent herbicides for herbicide-resistance management options, but some of these herbicides can negatively impact seedling development, early season growth and potential yields,” he says. “So, we need to be cautious when using them to ensure a good start for the season.”

Contact Tommy Horton at (901)767-4020 or

Don't Be In A Rush To Plant Crop Too Early

Jeff Gore, assistant research professor at the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, Miss., says the main objective should be not to rush too quickly to plant. He says this is a tendency that “producers seem to fight every year.”

“Everybody wants to jump out there too early,” he says. “If that seedling is exposed to cool temperatures, its development will slow down, and it becomes susceptible to both insects and disease pressure.”

Gore can understand why a producer would want to plant early when unseasonably warm weather occurs. But he points out that this isn’t a weather trend that can be counted on every year.

Because of a farmer’s front-end investment in seed technology, it’s critical that the seed be planted in a timely manner that gives it a chance to germinate under the best possible conditions.

Gore says “it’s almost a Catch-22 situation” when it comes to the ideal planting date. There are pros and cons to this decision. From one standpoint, it’s advantageous to plant early. It gives the plant a chance for a good start with potential fruiting on one of the lower nodes. This helps in the plant’s ability to withstand early plant bug attacks.

Then, there are the pitfalls associated with planting early. If cold temperatures persist after planting, maturity is delayed and fruiting occurs on higher branches. This, in turn, affects plant bug management later in the season.

“Sometimes a farmer doesn’t do himself any good when he plants during the first week of April,” says Gore. “Instead, by planting between April 15 and the first week in May, the weather conditions are generally better. That, in turn, gets that seedling off to a better start.”

And what about corn fields adjacent or near cotton? As expected, corn is an excellent host environment for plant bugs that eventually migrate into cotton.

“Think about it,” says Gore. “If we are down to 150,000 acres of cotton in Mississippi, our plant bugs and thrips will be concentrated on fewer acres. We have to be aware of that situation and may need to spray for these pests.”

Checklist For Seedling Health

• Check soil temperature.
• Understand seed’s potential.
• Check for soil variability.
• Don’t plant too early.
• Monitor weather forecast.
• Don’t plant too deep.

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