North Carolina: 3 Approaches With 2019’s Variable Crop

Moisture stressed cotton.

The 2019 cotton crop is probably the most variable statewide that we’ve seen in quite some time.

  • Many areas have been plagued with severe drought, which resulted in some cotton cutting out fairly sharply while only in the second or third week of bloom.
  • Other areas have received plentiful and frequent rains, and that part of the crop is quite strong, especially in fields heavier soils and greater water holding capacity.

We often hear the adage ,“We are never more than 4 or 5 days away from severe drought.” That has certainly held true this year.

When temperatures move into the 90ss, and especially goes over 95 degrees, our soil moisture rapidly depletes. Heavier soils obviously maintain soil moisture longer than sandier soils. However, no soils are immune to severe drought when hot dry conditions prevail for a week or longer.

It’s way too early to even guess yields at this point, regardless of the scenario. But, it’s wise to budget according to realistic yield potential and perhaps adjust our inputs for what we are likely to harvest in certain cases.

As of now, the 2019 crop can be categorized into one of the 3 scenarios:

#1. Good growth with strong yield potential:

These are the areas with heavier soils that have received rain fairly consistently, have encountered little or no significant drought stress, or are irrigated.

Stay the course on this crop. Scout closely and treat insects as needed. Apply PGRs as needed. Depending on planting date, some more fertilizer may be needed. However, most of our fertility program does need to be in soil solution prior to first bloom.

For irrigated fields, keep close track of growth stage (week of development) and apply irrigation at appropriate rates as seen in a previous article,

Use irrigation to bridge gaps between rains during those 5-day to 10-day dry spells. Be very timely with those irrigation applications, and remember that when plants are wilting, you’ve waited too long to resume irrigation.

In years like this when hot, dry conditions are the driver, be proactive rather than reactive. If you’re on the fence about irrigating and the forecast for rain is less than certain, go ahead and irrigate.

#2. Dryland, drought-stressed fields approaching cutout:

These areas have experienced noticeable drought stress, likely on sandier soils, but for whatever reason, cotton has not quite reached cutout. These may be later planted fields, for example.

Ideally, cotton doesn’t hit cutout until at least weeks 4 or 5 of bloom or even later. But, due to heat and drought stress, these fields are quickly approaching cutout in weeks 1 to week 3 of bloom. They also show signs of stress – wilting, toughened and reddening stalks, larger squares in the terminal.

Obviously, rain is the best cure and these fields have the greatest need. In these temperatures, every day counts….the sooner it rains, the better. Every day that these fields continue wilting, it will be harder for plants to recover when it does rain and yield losses will only accumulate in the meantime

Given that we are only in the early part of the bloom period, we badly need to avoid reaching cutout this early. If rains start now,and continue every few days, we COULD (not “will”) observe a “suspended” cutout. That means terminal growth renews and essentially grows at the same rate as the uppermost white bloom develops.

In that scenario, the crop stays in a poorly defined cutout, while setting a few more fruiting nodes, and thus more bolls. The rains that would allow for this would also help retain and develop the small bolls currently on the plant, plus a few to several more yet to appear.

As far as what we can do, avoid any and all PGR applications unless cotton is already tall. It’s worth noting that to date we have not seen a single case of cotton being too tall or anywhere close in fields that fall into this particular category.

With this scenario:

  • If it starts raining soon, yield potential is anyone’s guess. It’s simply too early to tell.
  • If it doesn’t rain again soon (and continue for a time thereafter), a suspended cutout will become much less likely and we’ll know pretty quickly what our most realistic yield may be, as it becomes more like cotton in category 3 (see below).

Stay the course on insects but be cautious of your overall budget for this crop. Certainly, DO NOT apply any PGRs, but also avoid other unnecessary inputs that aren’t likely to improve yields. Utilize your NCSU County Agents/Specialists or Consultants when making decisions about these inputs.

Start thinking about what we can realistically harvest, while avoiding false hopes in “miracle” inputs that aren’t likely to bring this crop around.

#3. Dryland, drought-stressed fields that have cutout sharply.

These are the worst cases we’ve seen. The crop is way too short to support an adequate boll load. But it also has clearly and sharply cut out, often within the second to fourth week of bloom.

So what COULD happen? If rains start now and occur frequently for quite some time, these fields will first try to develop the fruit load currently on the plant. After some time, the terminal will slowly start to regrow as long as rains continue. It also will developing several compact fruiting nodes.

We generally see this in September, after our last effective blooming date when boll demands have been met and rains cause the plant to cycle around again and develop what we generally call terminal regrowth.

Normally, we ignore terminal regrowth. It appears too late and doesn’t generally contribute to additional yield. But we are a long way from our last effective bloom date, and there is currently a very small boll load on the plant, with a relatively low demand for nutrients and carbohydrates.

With several weeks of rain and little or no further drought stress, these fields COULD (not “will”) develop several more fruiting nodes in the terminal with a much later-maturing top crop. That will improve overall yield potential, but it’s often a management nightmare when contending with late-season insects and defoliation timing.

The portion of the crop in this scenario is likely to start shedding younger fruit. If rains return, it will set a “top crop” that is much younger than the bottom crop. When making defoliation decisions, do you wait for the top crop to mature?

Pay attention to the bloom date of the top crop, and it wouldn’t hurt to flag a few blooms around the last effective bloom date so you can know which bolls may have a reasonable chance of being harvested.

It’s best to avoid chasing blooms that occur in September. So, we mentioned that this COULD happen, but what is likely to happen?

More on Cotton

If any noticeable or prolonged drought occurs in the next few weeks, the aforementioned scenario becomes much less likely. Evaluate each field as it develops and begin counting harvestable bolls to try to gauge realistic yield estimates.

As in category 2, we need to reel back our input costs within reason. PGRs are useless on fields in this scenario. Avoid additional losses by focusing on the most important issues, like insect management.

Even if they’re cheap, avoid other inputs that are either unproven or don’t consistently improve yields. Don’t spend much money on false hopes, unless Mother Nature turns things around.

We are unaware of any products that negate severe drought stress, Again, the objective with inputs at this point is to retain and develop our current fruit load or anything that appear fairly soon.

Economize within reason on the products that ARE necessary. We sincerely hope we’re wrong here, and it is still early yet so there are no guarantees. But we need to be honest with ourselves about yield potential where fields don’t receive frequent rains soon and haven’t shown signs of potential recovery by the first half of August.

In these cases, draw a line in the sand and walk away. These decisions are generally easier to make when you have a good handle on your:

  • Production costs.
  • Break-even yields at the current (or likely) pricing structure.
  • Details about your crop insurance policy (historic yields, APH, coverage levels and type, etc).

Also, before making any drastic but important decisions, get all the advice you can from your consultant, county agent, Extension Specialists and other advisors.

Again, it’s way too early to tell with any degree of certainty. Time will tell, but timely rains sure would help.

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