By Beck Barnes
The 2017 growing season is shaping up to be a good one in the Lone Star State. Cotton prices are rebounding and acreage is poised to remain robust.
But amid all the warm feelings that planting season engenders, a familiar set of on-farm challenges are set to cause problems once again in the coming year. Water woes will once again play a major role. Unpredictable weather will no doubt cause headaches during planting season. And yield robbing weed and disease pests will return in full force.
So what can Texas cotton producers do to insure they’ll make the most of 2017? We consulted with Texas’s Extension cotton specialist Dr. Gaylon Morgan to find out.
Production Tip No. 1: Know Thy Pests and Choose a Variety Accordingly
Everything is bigger in Texas – including the list of potential problems a cotton farmer might encounter in any given year. From nematodes to marestail, blight to aphids, there’s no shortage of potential problems. That’s why, according to Morgan, growers should be as knowledgeable as possible about their own specific operations – and choose a variety accordingly.
“The first thing is to know your enemy, or your pest that you’re going to be fighting,” says Morgan. “There’s a lot of folks that are going to have the glyphosate resistant pigweeds, but there’s also a lot of people in regions that don’t. So that’s going to be a big factor in dictating which variety you choose.”
Of course, weeds aren’t the only factors to consider when weighing variety choices. Bacterial blight made a major impact on the 2016 production season, and Morgan believes it will be back in 2017.
“Bacterial blight was something that was present statewide in 2016,” says Morgan. “It’s a fairly consistent problem in parts of west Texas. But there are a lot of options. Fortunately, companies are coming out with new tools.
“If you had bad bacterial blight in 2016, and especially if you’re going to have a reduced-tillage cotton crop in 2017, then selecting a variety with bacterial blight resistance should be top on your list,” he says.
Many growers also faced increased worm pressure last season. That problem, too, has an answer rooted in seed technology. Morgan points to the new Bt traits that will hit the cotton market over the next couple of seasons.
“We’re going to have lots of opportunities for managing bollworm,” says Morgan.
But how exactly can a cotton producer better understand the conditions on his own farm? Morgan recommends starting with the basics.
“Definitely soil testing is probably one of the best investments people can make, so they know what they’re starting from on their nutrients in the soil,” he says. “They can apply accordingly to bring those up to optimize their yields.”
Once growers have done their homework on their own farms, they’ll be able to make the most informed variety decisions.
Production Tip No. 2: Maximize Your Water
At risk of sounding redundant, knowledge is key when it comes to variety selection. And no variable will have a bigger impact on your success in 2017 than water.
“In a rain-fed situation, which is the vast majority of our acres, we’re just coping with what Mother Nature gives to us, as far as water,” says Morgan. “There are obviously varieties that are more water use efficient than others.
“As far as variety selection, there were probably 75 Extension cotton variety trials that were conducted in Texas. So the thought would be to look at those dryland locations, and choose those varieties that were consistently at the top of those trials nearest to your location.”
For growers who struggle with inadequate water, there are production practices to help you optimize your water use efficiency. One way to better retain those winter and spring rains that do come your way is to utilize a cover crop, according to Morgan.
“The more cover or residue there is on the soil surface, the less evaporation a grower is going to lose,” he says. Similarly, the less tillage a field sees, the more moisture it will retain.
“Don’t till or don’t plow if you don’t have to,” Morgan says. “Because you’re losing a substantial amount of water every time you run those cultivators or plows through the field.”
Production Tip No. 3: Minimize Early Season Risk
When it comes to establishing a strong stand, timing is everything. And while predicting the weather is never an exact science, growers should pay close attention to the forecast when determining the best time to plant.
“The best way to avoid early season risk is to plant when your soil temperature is appropriate and you’re not expecting a cold front,” says Morgan. “And you’ve got to do your best to work around Mother Nature on those occasions.”
Choosing the right time to plant is crucial for smaller-seeded varieties, like Deltapine’s popular DP 1646 B2XF. Morgan lays out a simple recommendation for choosing the best moment to plant.
“Ideally, your soil temperature is around 65 degrees at four inches deep,” he says. “Definitely no lower than 60 degrees. And then basically you want a favorable five-to-seven day forecast, where you don’t have a cold front or a disruptive rainfall moving in.”
Many Texas growers have been pushing the envelope in terms of planting earlier and earlier in recent years. Morgan says he understands that growers are walking a tight line between either planting too early or too late.
“It’s not the farmer’s fault, because they have a tough choice to make,” he says. “But there are ways to avoid risk from an agronomic perspective. Choose those varieties with greater seedling vigor to plant early. Those smaller seed varieties, you need to wait until those soil temperatures are in that more ideal range.”
Morgan recommends growers consult their seed company representatives for seedling vigor tips on the specific variety they choose.