Virginia Cotton: What Are the Pros and Cons of Planting Early?

Back in the 90’s, our goal was to push cotton planting as early as possible, even with the idea of getting as much in before May 5th as possible. This was not wrong based on the trends and technology for back then, but there is no question that it is very different now. Our optimal planting window is probably May 1 to May 25th.

In addition, based on the seasonal weather trends, variety characteristics, and modern technology, we have been doing just as good with June cotton as April cotton and better sometimes. We don’t always even get a chance to plant early because of coolness, but this year, we have very favorable temperatures to start early. Actually, it really isn’t even all that early anymore since that rains slowed things down, but compared to last year, it is.

For me, the question is not – “Should I plant early?” but rather, “if I am planting early, what risks should I address, and what are the management implications?”

The concern for early planting is simply that the cotton could begin blooming too early. This puts boll development peaking during the longest, and sometimes hottest and driest days of summer. Similarly, this early boll set will start opening during a more humid part of the fall, even as early as late August which usually has higher hardlock concerns.

The benefits of early planting are:

  • a longer blooming period,
  • more time to compensate for early fruit or stand loss,
  • cotton grows slower early so you don’t have to sit on it with Pix as much,
  • lower seeding rates make sense since the plants have more time to make more fruit,
  • you will have more maturity and less susceptibility to August insect damage or late drought.

Also if we have a cool summer, the early planted cotton won’t have the maturity concerns.

Overall it is a good thing to have some early planted cotton, in fact, each year, we need to play the hand we are dealt. Some management solutions to maximize the benefits of early planting and minimize the risks are:

  • select full season varieties,
  • start on land that supports good to excessive growth,
  • plant your irrigated fields early,
  • push the early cotton harder with nitrogen,
  • don’t be as aggressive with early pix applications,
  • drop seeding rate by 10 to 15% when days are hot and moisture is good.

Another big one is just hold up til May on that deep sand which is already susceptible to premature cutout because an early planting date could exaggerate that issue. Also, If you’re getting half finished by May 5th, slow down a bit.

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