For Arkansas’ cotton crop it’s been a spring of wild mood swings. Hopefully it isn’t a preamble to a winter of discontent.

“It’s hard to catch your balance out here. So far this growing season, we’ve had the coldest temperatures (several nights, temperatures dipped to 39), and we’ve had very high temperatures,” said veteran east Arkansas consultant Bob Griffin, in early June. “I recorded a 97 a couple of weeks ago. Then, in early May, we had extreme rains around Marianna. It may not have been the wettest ever, but it was wet enough to keep us out of the fields. And now, for this time in June, it’s drier than I ever recall. So we’ve seen major extremes in the last few weeks.”

Crawling along

The cotton crop has yet to find its sea legs. As it crawled towards first bloom, Griffin wasn’t the only one concerned.

“We’ve slowed down on node production, and that’s a major concern,” said Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. “For a while, we were hanging in with a node produced every four to four and a half days. But over the (first week of June), that’s slowed down, especially on our early-May-planted cotton. If we don’t get a rain over the next couple of days, we’ll have to start irrigating in earnest.”

Most years, as long as the crop puts on nodes close to the normal rate, Robertson doesn’t fret.

“I like to see a new node every 55 to 60 heat units. If it dips below that a little, it’s no big deal. When it’s moist and warm, it’s not uncommon to see two nodes every five days. Lately, we’ve been seeing two nodes every nine days or so. In some fields over the last week, it’s been hard to see where plants have put on a new node.”

Griffin, who works large cotton acreage in Lee and Phillips counties, is “very worried” about cotton near squaring. “It takes 25 days from the time a square develops until bloom. If cotton is progressing as it should, it’ll add a node every 2.75 days. Well, we were doing that until a couple of weeks ago. Now, we’re putting on a node every four to five days. We all know how important it is to have as many nodes above white flower (NAWF) as possible when bloom hits. That’s our crop’s potential.

“If you divide 25 by 2.5, you’ll have 10 NAWF at first bloom. If you divide 25 by 4, you’re looking at six NAWF. We definitely don’t want just six nodes at bloom, but that’s what we’re looking at.”

As is Robertson, Griffin is advising his clients to irrigate. “This is two weeks earlier than we’ve ever watered. We’re already running pivots and will start furrow irrigating in the next couple of days. If we don’t, we’re heading for a crash, and our crop yield could be cut in half. We need a rain badly.”

Much of the state’s early-May-planted cotton should be squaring the second week of June. If it isn’t, producers need to irrigate. And if it is squaring, “we need to water anyway because we don’t want to let squaring cotton stress,” said Robertson. “Yield-wise, we still have time. But with the pre-square cotton, we’re losing days on the front end that we’ll never get back.”

Because of staggered planting and cold temperatures, cotton maturity is inconsistent. “It’s all over the place,” said Robertson. “I’ve tried to estimate when we’ll hit pinhead square. I think we’ll be a solid week or 10 days later than normal.”

Thin stands

Griffin began this year just like the last couple: planting in mid-April. For the first few days, he saw ideal planting conditions. Most of the crop grew to a decent stand although the populations were thinner than normal.

“That’s true across the board,” said Griffin. “Normally, I like to shoot for 2.5 to 2.75 plants per foot (37,000 plants per acre). This year, we ended up averaging about 25,000 to 30,000 plants per acre. Some fields have two plants per foot and some 1.5 plants per foot (17,000 to 20,000 plants per acre).”

Little pest, big numbers

With cotton growing slowly, pests are a problem. Normally at this time of year, cotton has outgrown the thrips threat.

At first, the thin stands Griffin saw didn’t worry him too much because the plants were healthy. But then thrips arrived mid-May.

“It’s kind of strange. Last fall, some of my growers asked, ‘Thinking ahead, what do you think we’ll see out of the thrips?’ I said, ‘There’s no wheat, so thrips shouldn’t be too bad.’ Well, we’ve found out thrips come from places besides wheat fields. The weeds drying down due to lack of rain has put them on our crops big time. We’ve got as bad a — if not a worse — problem as I’ve ever seen.”

Griffin is responsible for fields planted in treated seed. Some of those fields were sprayed for thrips 10 to 14 days after planting.

“That’s very unusual. Most of the fields I’m seeing this on have maybe 20 to 30 percent of the field needing protection. That leads me to believe — and I may get calls and grief over this, but the truth is the truth — there are some gaps in our seed treatments. In other words, for 70 to 80 percent of the plants there’ll be no blemishes on the leaves and no thrips. But that other 20 percent of the plants are being hammered, crinkling leaves. The only difference we can come up with is a lack of treatment on the seed.”

Griffin first saw this on cotton less than a month old.

“You expect for the seed treatments to last only three to four weeks anyway. But now I’m seeing thrips on one-leaf and two-leaf cotton on almost every plant.”

Robertson backs Griffin’s assertions, saying he’s received calls from producers with the same observations. “I’ve talked with consultants who report they’re seeing more variability in fields with seed treatments. Some plants are exhibiting solid thrips control and others are covered up with them.

“There’s a question about whether there’s uniform treatments on the seed. I can tell you there are a lot of questions relating to that. I’m hearing more and more complaints about it.”

Both men suspect there are several variables at play. “It’s extremely dry, so the treatment material isn’t being activated like it normally is,” said Griffin. “It also seems we’ve got extremely high thrips numbers. Yesterday, using a box, I shook one plant and counted 126 thrips. I’ve never seen anything close to that number on one plant. The most I’ve seen before is 15 or 20 thrips. On the average, that field had 25 to 30 thrips per plant. This is a field of treated seed, so I was amazed. It seems the further we get into the season, the worse the thrips get. Thrips will delay maturity of our cotton, no doubt. I hope that doesn’t put us behind the eight ball.”

Plant bugs and an admonition

Griffin has been advocating an automatic Centric application for several years. “In the week of pinhead square, I think you should automatically make a Centric application (1.25 ounces broadcast, usually with a hood) for plant bugs. That also keeps us from having to treat for aphids so much.”

With just several squares on the plant, it’s difficult to reach treatment level for plant bugs.

“I agree there are some fields that don’t need treatment. But if you don’t spray, you can be caught with your pants down and lose early fruit. Since I’ve been doing it, I haven’t had to treat a single field for aphids. We spray the week of pinhead square and farmers come back a week to 10 days later with a second application. From then on, we spray as needed based on shake sheets.”

In closing, Robertson insisted producers not wait until the 10th cotton node before watering. “As slow as it’s growing, if we wait until the 10th node we may not be far from cut-out at first bloom. If fields continue dry, that’s the truth. On eight-node cotton, we don’t want to let the crop stress. So much of this could be solved with a good rain. We need one badly.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com