Good cotton stands critical during drought

As dry conditions continue to grip much of Texas’ Cotton Belt, there are factors producers can control that will improve the chances of establishing a good cotton stands, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.

On a recent episode of the AgriLife Online Crop Production Podcast, Jourdan Bell, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agronomist, Amarillo, and Emi Kimura, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agronomist, Vernon, joined other AgriLife Extension experts to discuss cotton production. Both noted that drought conditions will make crop establishment a challenge.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Texas’ Cotton Belt, which includes much of the Panhandle, Rolling Plains and South Plains, is experiencing severe to extreme drought, with large swaths of the regions entering exceptional drought status as of March 10. Drought conditions make establishing cotton stands a challenge, even in irrigated fields.

Bell and Kimura said weather is out of producers’ control, but that by improving cotton seeds’ chance of germination and establishment they can improve yield potential at harvest.

Cotton is more drought hardy than other crops like corn and sorghum, especially after a good stand is established, Bell said. This makes establishing good stands critical when conditions are not ideal for planting.   

“Mistakes at planting can haunt you all season,” she said. “Cotton is a plant that can adapt, but we are looking for a good, uniform stand at the start.”

Seed depth critical for cotton stands

Bell said cotton growers know soil moisture is necessary for germination. They know to plant when soil temperatures are 65 degrees or above consistently. Producers may also know the correct seed depth for their chosen varieties. But, she said, they need to make sure planters are delivering seeds to the correct soil microenvironment for success.

Ideal seeding depth could be 0.5-1.5 inches depending on variety, she said, but oftentimes equipment issues can be a contributing factor to success or failure. Producers should check for mechanical issues such as diameter of disc openers, row cleaners, closing wheels, down pressure, loose bushings or bolts, or any other maintenance issue that could result in the planter placing seeds unevenly or too shallow or too deep.

“We talk about planting conditions like soil temperature and moisture, but I don’t think we talk about planters enough,” Bell said. “Unfortunately, we have a negative weather outlook, so planter settings and maintenance are even more critical. Be aware of any issue that might cause bouncing and uneven seeding depths.”

Seed vigor, soil temperature important

Among the factors producers can control, Kimura emphasized soil temperature and seed quality and vigor.

Soil temperatures need to be at least 65 degrees for five straight days, she said. So, producers should avoid planting if soil temperatures are good, but a cold front is forecast to arrive over the following five days.

Challenging conditions place even more importance on growers planting high quality seed, Kimura said. Cotton seedlings often encounter stressful conditions at the beginning of the growing season, and while high seedling vigor may not mitigate the impact of stress factors, it can help.

One method to determine vigor is through the use of the Cool-Warm Vigor Index, which is typically provided by sellers for buyers to refer to before purchasing cotton seed. Vigor can also be tested.  

Planning could be moot for dryland producers in many parts of the Cotton Belt if rainfall does not create adequate germination conditions over the next 45-60 days, Kimura said. But irrigated producers can increase the chances of establishing a good stand. And dryland producers can be prepared to plant, and plant effectively, if rains do arrive in their planting window.

“We can’t control Mother Nature, but we can control when and what we plant,” she said. “We can plant really well. Pencil every aspect of production out due to high input costs and have a plan, and then hope for rain.”

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