Prepping for Cotton Season #Plant21 

It is hard to believe, but planters will be rolling through fields soon to kick off the 2021 cotton season. While every season is different and Mother Nature holds much in the balance, here are a few things to consider to help get your crop up and off to a good start.  



Kick the Tires 

During the off-season prior to planting, make sure all equipment is serviced and maintained and ready for the season. While tractors and planters are critically important, don’t forget other key equipment that will be needed in the early season like irrigation and sprayers.  

“I’m not an equipment expert, but most growers know their planter and its capabilities, notes Alabama Cotton Specialist Steve Brown. “Making sure everything – chains, belts, bearings, wheels, disks, hoses, vacuums, seed separators, firmers, etc. – is in top working order ahead of time is time well spent. Old or new equipment can get the job done and done right if attention is paid to detail.” 

Fertile Grounds 

Utilize soil test tests to determine fertilizer needs for the upcoming crop. Follow local recommendations on fertilizer rates and applications. According to University of Georgia Extension, here are a few considerations:

  • Because current cotton varieties are relatively fast fruiting and early in maturity, this makes them more susceptible to potassium (K) deficiency. In most situations, the best strategy to avoid K deficiency is to 1) soil test, 2) apply the recommended K fertilizer at planting, and 3) consider foliar feeding K during peak bloom.
  • Nitrogen(N) is probably the most important fertilizer used on cotton, yet it is the most difficult to manage. Low N rates can reduce yield and quality while excessive N rates can cause rank growth, boll rot, delayed maturity, difficult defoliation and poor quality and yield. Total N rates for cotton should be based on soil type, previous crop, growth history and yield potential. 
  • The total N rate should always be applied in split applications. Apply a fourth to a third of the recommended N at planting and the remainder at sidedress. The preplant or at planting N application is critical for getting the crop off to a good start and ensuring adequate N nutrition prior to side-dressing.

Know Your Seed

Cotton seed and its many traits have become one of the most important considerations. The gains in yield potential and weed, insect and disease protection technologies have been a revolution in cotton production. But you need to pick the right seeds for your soils and maturity needs.  

And you need to know their quality, according the North Carolina Cotton Specialist Guy Collins. “Growers should have their seed tested,” he says. “In our case, that’s by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. We have a cotton seed quality testing program for both warm and cool germ, and the program is free to producers. These are official samples, where samples are pulled by seed inspectors from unopened bags or containers, and these have merit if there is any complaint with seed quality. There are also service samples which hold no merit in complaints, as these seed are taken from opened bags or seed that has already been downstream treated. Both types of tests provide good information for making better planting decisions.”   

Check Your Temperature 

Soil and ambient temperature and moisture are key factors to consider when pulling the trigger on planting. There’s science, art, and gambling in critical timing of putting planters in the field.  

Conventional wisdom notes you should look for a mean daily temperature of 65 degrees F or greater at a 4-inch seeding depth measured each day at 8:00 am for at least three consecutive days. These conditions generally coincide with calendar dates and the bulk of planting gets done in May into early June.  

“Time planting around optimal temperatures, which are highs in the low to mid 80s or higher and overnight lows in the 60s or above, to ensure that the plant accumulates the needed daily DD60s, or heat units, for rapid growth and emergence, says Oklahoma Cotton Specialist Seth Byrd. “The general rule is 50 to 60 heat units are required after planting to achieve emergence and accumulating six to 10 heat units per day during the five- to seven-day period after planting is considered favorable conditions.” 

Start Clean 

Cotton is not much of a competitor with early season weeds. Left unchecked, weed competition can take a big bite out of yields. Resistant pigweed can’t be ignored. 

“You have to start clean,” says Georgia Extension Weed Specialist Stanley Culpepper. “Some growers prefer tillage – I prefer a cover crop – with the herbicides up front. Put two active ingredients that are effective on Palmer amaranth behind the press wheel, make a timely post one application and a timely post two application with some residuals if you need them. Then, run a layby rig or hooded sprayer where you can get some diuron or other chemistry in there. That layby application will protect that farm, not just the cotton crop.” 

Local Knowledge 

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom when it comes to cotton planting and early-season crop care, but nothing beats local expertise coming from Extension, crop consultants, and your neighbor.