Hand: Playing Defense in Cotton Production: Variety Selection and Planting Dates

Although I didn’t grow up on a farm, I’ve been immersed in agriculture for my entire life. My great grandfather was a truck farmer, my grandfather managed a farmer’s co-op, and my dad has worked in the ag chemical industry for nearly 30 years. Because it is in my blood, I was naturally inclined to pursue a career in agriculture. I obtained my B.S. and M.S. in Horticulture at Auburn University, and my first job while I was still an undergraduate was working for the Extension Soybean Agronomist, Dr. Dennis Delaney. After two years working for Dr. Delaney, I knew that I wanted to be an extension agronomist, conducting impactful research and providing timely information to the people who need it most. That led me to the University of Georgia, where I pursued my Ph.D. in weed science under Dr. Stanley Culpepper. I’ll never forget when I met Dr. Culpepper’s graduate school advisor, Dr. Alan York. He and I were walking down the street and Dr. York looked at me and said, “You know he is going to work you to death, right?” Dr. York was right, and Dr. Culpepper’s reputation holds true. Dr. Culpepper is one of the hardest workers I have ever been lucky enough to work with. I learned so much from him and owe him a lot for bringing me on as a graduate student. I recently wrapped up graduate school and on February 1st I started my career at the University of Georgia as the Extension Cotton Agronomist. I am honored to have gotten such a great job, at such a prestigious institution, and to be able to work in arguably the best extension system in the country. My extension and research efforts will focus on providing timely information to county agents and growers to maintain the high level of cotton production in Georgia.

This time of year, variety decisions are either done or in the process of being done, and people are beginning to think about planting cotton. As an avid sports fan, I like to think about these decisions through the lens of a defensive strategy in sports. The first thing you have to do in developing a defensive strategy is study your opponent. So, what is the biggest opponent you face on your farm? Intense weed pressure? Historically high insect populations? Nematodes? Foliar diseases? Lack of irrigation or water holding capacity? Although the major factor in variety selection is genetic yield potential, all of these things should be influencing variety selection and planting dates! Variety selection isn’t a “one size fits all” decision. Certain varieties may perform better in different fields than others, so defensive strategies to preserve yield can change on a field-by-field basis.

A couple of years ago, LSU was the team to beat in the Southeastern Conference. Their offense was unstoppable, and seemingly no one could slow them down. Their lowest point total that year was against Auburn, and it was 23 points. How did they do it? Auburn’s base defense was a 4-2-5 with 4 linemen, 2 linebackers, and 5 defensive backs. For the LSU game, they implemented an entirely different defensive scheme for only one week, and switched to a 3-1-7 defense using 3 linemen, 1 linebacker, and 7 defensive backs. LSU’s offense was pass heavy, and the 7 defensive backs closed some of the passing windows that Joe Burrow favored that season. This greatly frustrated the Bayou Bengals potent attack, and it was because the Auburn defensive coordinator meticulously studied his opponent and knew what he had to do to give his team a chance to be competitive.

For the most part, you know the issues you will face in your fields this year better than anyone. Of course, there will be things that come up this season that will be unique to 2021, but for the most part, we know what to anticipate. Are weeds your major issue? There are options for the technology to implement in your field, including the Xtend and Enlist technologies. How about nematodes? Take a look at nematode resistant varieties. Bacterial blight? There are resistant varieties for that as well. Are you expecting heavy thrips pressure? Consider larger-seeded, more vigorous varieties, and maybe a later plant date. What about whitefly pressure? Earlier planting dates and smooth-leaved varieties can help. Are you planting into irrigated or dryland conditions? Some varieties may perform better in one than the other.

A great place to start in deciding on a variety is the On-Farm Variety Evaluation Program. Each year, multiple varieties are evaluated throughout the cotton producing regions of Georgia in multiple different environments. I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Dr. Phillip Roberts for leading the charge on this last year in cooperation with our incredible UGA county extension agents, grower cooperators, industry partners, the Georgia Cotton Commission, and Cotton Incorporated. Your local county extension agent has the results from 2020, and the results can also be found online at ugacotton.com. In this program, the cotton seed companies put their best varieties in the trial, so all of the varieties evaluated are the best of the best in terms of yield potential according to their respective companies. The program also incorporates both Xtend and Enlist varieties, with different nematode and disease resistance packages, and even different seed sizes/vigor. In 2020, yield environments ranged from around 700 lbs/acre up to 1,600 lbs/acre, so based on that, and the knowledge that you have on your field, you should be able to find a variety that fits the situation you face.

The last piece of advice I have with these decisions: mix it up! In a football or basketball game, if a team does the same thing over and over and over again, eventually the opposing defense will find a way to stop it. The same will happen if you put all of your eggs in one basket with variety and planting date. With respect to planting date especially, earlier planted cotton last year suffered from extreme boll rot and hard lock, while in later planted cotton it may not have been so bad. Whereas in 2018, later planted cotton was at a higher risk of being taken out by Hurricane Michael. Trying to mix it up in terms of planting date can help mitigate some of the risk associated with unpredictable environmental conditions, and can help ensure that at least some of the crop can be harvested as opposed to a total loss.

As always, your UGA county extension agents and the rest of the cotton team are here to help you. If you have any questions about variety selection, planting date, or any other matters, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Here’s to a safe and successful 2021 growing season!

Dr. L. Camp Hand is an Extension Cotton Agronomist and Assistant Professor with the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences.  For more information, please contact Dr. Hand at camphand@uga.edu.