This past spring was my first on the road doing the county production meeting circuit, and it was a busy one. From mid-January to March 10 myself, representatives from the Cotton Commission, and members of the UGA Cotton Team did 49 meetings. In-person meetings are key to the success of the county delivery system, and sticking to the county delivery system is what has set UGA Extension as one of the best extension systems in the country. It was great to get back in person, and for me to be able to meet people as I enter my second year on the job.
One thing I talked about at every meeting was some of the wide-row research I did last year. The main goal (for most folks) in adopting this system is the potential for reducing input costs – namely seed costs. In our study here in Tifton, we reduced our seed cost 40 and 50% when we went from 36-inch rows to our wider 60- or 72-inch rows, respectively. We also saw yield reductions of 200 to 500 lbs. of lint per acre when we went to wider row spacings. So my message this winter was that I’m not sure there’s a fit in Georgia for this system on a lot of acres. After I got done talking about this, the follow up question was inevitably, “Well what if we keep the same row spacing but reduce our seeding rates?” Fantastic question.
One of my good friends likes to remind me, “Anybody can plant cotton, but can’t everybody get a stand.” This is a complex conversation, and lots of factors go into getting a stand. The first and likely most important factor is the environmental conditions at and after planting. We have got to have ideal temperatures and moisture to ensure the seed we put in the ground germinates and emerges. A fantastic resource to assist in the planting decision is the Planting Conditions Calculator, provided online by NC State at this link: https://products.climate.ncsu.edu/ag/cotton-planting/. You can select an area near your farm and this tool will use the 7-day weather forecast to determine the planting conditions based on degree day accumulation and rainfall. Luckily, we have a wider planting window than many of our friends in other cotton producing areas. In some places, the planting window is realistically 10 days, while here we could start in April and plant into June. Hopefully at some point during our wider planting window, mother nature will cooperate!
Another consideration is the quality of the seed you put in the ground. The predominant way to predict seed quality is warm and cool germ. Warm germ is provided on the bag of seed, and cool germ is easily obtainable from the seed company or dealer. You could also get your seed tested through a service provided by the Department of Agriculture.
The frustrating part about the aforementioned factors associated with stand establishment is that they are largely out of our control. Of course we can’t control mother nature, but seed quality is largely determined prior to getting on the farm. Recent research has demonstrated that leaving seed in the sun for 6 hours or dropping it multiple times from seven feet high didn’t impact stand establishment or vigor. So, even being relatively harsh with the seed didn’t affect stand establishment. So why talk about the things we can’t control?
A sort of mantra for me lately has been “Control the things you can control.” So I like to talk about the things that we can’t control to reiterate that so many things can go wrong, let’s make sure the things we can control go right. First thing’s first: make sure your planter is dialed in and ready to go when you pull in the field. Our precision ag specialists, Drs. Wes Porter and Simer Virk developed a planter checklist to help with this and it can be found at this link: https://site.extension.uga.edu/colquittag/files/2021/01/PlanterChecklist_C1231.pdf.
The next thing you can control – and what I have been asked about most this year – is seeding rate. I have heard a lot of talk about reducing seeding rates this year, and some of that might be justified, but I have a few thoughts on this before we all start jumping on seeding rates of 20 thousand per acre.
The first thought is not every seed you put in the ground will emerge and contribute significantly to yield. Many of you reading this probably just said to yourself, “Duh!”, but I like to keep it simple. Keep in mind that generally, the past two seasons have been pretty good to us in terms of planting conditions. Nothing too crazy, and I didn’t hear a ton about replants due to inadequate initial stands (not talking about deer damage). I’ve gotten to help out with some seeding rate trials in a couple of counties (two studies in Colquitt County with Jeremy Kichler and three studies in Bleckley County with Cole Moon) throughout the state, looking at seeding rates as low as 20 thousand per acre and as high as 45 thousand per acre. In three of those studies emergence was over 80%, and in all five locations emergence was over 70%. Overall, I would say that is pretty good. However, if you plant 20,000 seed per acre and only get 70% emergence/establishment, historically that is teetering on the edge of needing to replant (depending on the uniformity of the stand). The interesting data is what was seen on the return on investment once yield and quality were accounted for. The highest return on investment occurred when a seeding rate of 30,000 per acre was utilized (roughly 2 seed/ft). Averaged across the locations with more ideal stand establishment conditions, this resulted in a final plant stand of 1.7 plants per foot. In less ideal conditions the final plant stand was slightly less, 1.5 plants per foot. Historically, we know that maximum yields are attainable at a final stand of 1 plant per foot, but the key is that stand has to be uniform!!! We need to avoid large skips/gaps in stand. Uniformity is a large part of this conversation that is often left out.
The second thought I have is about this year specifically. Inputs are high and it is something at the forefront of everyone’s minds and a major part of the decisions that are being made for this season. Many people are probably thinking about reducing seeding rates to help save on these outrageous input costs. The question I will pose to you is this: How much would it cost you to replant if you reduce your seeding rate and end up with a stand failure? As mentioned earlier, a lot of things can go wrong when getting a stand. The weather might not cooperate, this might be the year you get “bad seed”, or any other number of factors. Is this the year to find all that out? Probably not on a large basis. Control the things you can control. Put enough seed in the ground that you will be comfortable getting a stand the first go round (if everything goes right). The last thing you want to do is make an extra trip over the field that could’ve been prevented from the outset. If you don’t get a good stand, all the other inputs (fertilizer, herbicides, etc.) aren’t being used to their fullest potential and you might not be getting the best return on your investment. The first step to be successful in making cotton and covering costs this year is to get a stand. Everybody can plant cotton, but can’t everybody get a stand. I hope everyone reading this gets a stand. If y’all have questions please don’t hesitate to reach out to your local UGA County Extension Agent. We are all here to help!