After two years of record and near-record yields, the 2006 Mid-South cotton crop is shaping up as a variable but average crop, thanks to a schizophrenic planting season and hot, dry weather during the growing season. The variability is going to create some challenges for defoliation and harvest.

On some fields, cotton producers are still pushing for a top crop. On others, they’ve pulled up and are looking forward to defoliation. In either case, a long harvest season appears in the offing.

“As late as some of the crop is, and as dry as some of the areas have been, if we get some late rains, we’re going to have some juvenile growth and the crop is going to be much more difficult to defoliate than what we have experienced the last couple of years,” said Larry Steckel, weed scientist with the West Tennessee Experiment Station in Jackson, Tenn.

“I think we’re going to have to be more aggressive. Probably in a lot of cases, to do a good job, we’re going to need two shots of defoliant.”

Variability within west Tennessee cotton fields is more pronounced this year. “In areas that had a little deeper soils, cotton held on and has progressed a little more normally. But on sandy spots and bald knob hills, the cotton moved right along into cutout.”

The crops of 2004 and 2005 were much more uniform because so much of the cotton was planted within a short window. “This year, we have two distinct crops, one planted late April up to early May. There’s a gap, then a crop planted from mid-May to early June. About 80 percent of the crop is in that latter half.”

Defoliation in west Tennessee typically begins on early cotton in mid-September and gets rolling on later cotton by early October. But this year, the defoliation season will begin earlier on the early crop — late August in some places.

Steckel says in the event of late-season rains after cutout, “juvenile growth is the biggest concern I have. A lot of times, producers can get by with Prep and DEF, which has been the standard in Tennessee for quite a while. But we may need to add something to the tank to curtail some of that early growth. I think we’ll see a lot more Dropp, or products that have a pre-mix of that in it.”

On later-planted cotton, Steckel says west Tennessee growers should consider a two-pass program. “Most growers don’t want to plan for it, but end up doing it anyway. A Prep and DEF combination followed by Prep and Aim is a good two-pass program and you may want to add some Dropp to slow down the juvenile growth.”

Juvenile growth can also occur on fields that are not harvested in a timely manner. “That’s a big thing to consider. We have a lot more cotton acres than we’ve had in the past. Our picker capacity is maxed out.”

The addition of a product like Aim or ET in the defoliation program addresses weed problems such as pigweeds and morningglories and is also a good option for producers in narrow-row cotton. “The research we’ve done here shows that one of the biggest problems in the 15-inch cotton is morningglories, which can get caught up in the spindles and cause problems, and late grass germination. Grass on the cut row in 15-inch cotton can be pulled into the spindle and jam the picker.”

Rainfall in west Tennessee has been spotty at best, according to Steckel. “We’ve been under severe drought stress from around Ripley south.”

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com