Though crop growth balanced out with heat units, the possibility of a late crop has many farmers planning to get it to the gin as fast as they can.

“I’m definitely looking at once-over picking. My crop is looking pretty good but it’s still a week to ten days behind normal. I’m going to speed it up any way I can,” says Scott Smith, a producer from Gates, Tenn.

That could be a safe outlook, the experts say. “Don’t get into the position where a nickel is holding up a dollar bill. If you wait on those green spots to mature, storms may come through and you’ll lose a lot of lint and quality while you wait,” says Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton agronomist.

He recommends using a harvest-scheduling tool like COTMAN to help pinpoint the best time for defoliation. “Identify your last money bolls. In a late crop year, the margin for error is less. Cotton will compensate during the season but when it’s late and there’s a weak to average root system, you don’t have a lot of time for compensation,” Robertson says.

Charles Parker, Senath, Mo. plans to harvest using a cotton micronaire test procedure developed by Arkansas farmer-agronomist Hal Lewis. It involves harvesting the first four position bolls from several locations in the field, blending, then ginning them in a micro-gin. “We’ll use Hal’s chart to predict what micronaire will be if we harvest then or take it on out to later maturity. It can help us do a better job of defoliating so we produce better quality cotton and avoid a discount. I want mike to be in the 4.0 to 4.5 range. I don’t want to dance up against 5.0 because that’s where the discounts start,” Parker says.

He’s also shooting for once-over picking. He’ll apply 1.33 quarts of Finish per acre with 0.5 percent surfactant on most of his fields with 23 gallons of water applied by ground rig. “It’ll knock the leaves off and open bolls in one pass. It just pops those bolls open. You can pick a couple of days earlier,” he says.

On rare occasions, in more densely canopied fields, he’ll use 6 ounces of Prep per acre with 0.1 pound of Dropp four to five days head of Finish. “For several years, we’ve harvested once-over. I don’t anticipate this crop being any different than other years,” says Parker, who partners with son-in-law Alan Jones in Parker and Jones Farms.

Harvest aid timing may be trickier than usual this year, says Will McCarty, Mississippi Extension cotton specialist. “It still needs to be based on a majority of the field. If there are green spots, watch for that, and make the decision based on when most of the crop is ready. You can’t leave a field of mostly open cotton out there waiting on 3 percent or 4 percent of it to mature,” he says.

Bill Elliott, Lake Village, Ark., says plenty of heat units helped his crop make up lost ground in a hurry after erratic spring weather left him replanting much acreage. But he also expects to pick most of his cotton just once. “We run stalk cutters right behind the pickers. This crop is going to be a little bit late due to the mere fact that we had to replant, but I’m not that concerned about it. Most of mine is furrow-irrigated and it’s moving along fast enough that it’s going to be okay,” he says.

Defoliation timing is still more art than science, Elliott says. Even with methods like COTMAN available, he still likes to cut bolls and inspect seed coat to pin down when to start. “There are lots of methods. It can also depend on how many pickers you have and how much labor is available. If I have plenty of picking power, I might go a little later,” he says.

He’ll also use a strategy designed to defoliate the crop and open bolls. “One shot of a boll opening material at a full rate under ideal conditions and ten days to two weeks after spraying, you’re in there picking with 95 percent or more open,” he says.

With 7,500 acres of cotton, this season’s varying maturity stages may help harvest, says Mark Toole, a certified crop advisor who farms with Bryan Jones in A&W Planting Co., Cruger, Miss. “I think it’s going to be more spread out, which is better for us. We can’t pick it all at the same time, anyway. Our cotton is actually pretty uniform. We did no replanting to amount to anything, though it was kind of tough getting started,” he says.

What determines his defoliation timing? “A sharp knife,” he says.

“There are lots of scientific ways to do it but the best way is to get in the field and do what you know how to do. All I know is our grades have been consistently at the top for our gin. Fertility and defoliation play a big part in determining grades,” Toole says.

That’s why he prefers using a ground rig for precisely applying harvest aid materials. He’ll use 15 gallons of water per acre, with 1.33 quarts of a harvest aid material. In some fields, he adds another defoliant to help with regrowth problems if harvesting that cotton might be delayed.

“With 15 gallons of water, there’s not a leaf left out there. We’ve already managed the plant size with a growth regulant. This program cracks open those top bolls. I know it’s going to work. It’s pretty simple, and we very seldom have to dress up the ends of the rows. We have to harvest once-over. We don’t have time to scrap it. I’ve seen some folks mess up grades with defoliation alone. One of the hardest things in farming cotton is knowing when to pull the trigger,” Toole says.

Up in Tennessee, Scott Smith, who also custom picks cotton for other farmers, is anxious to get the pickers running. “If the cotton is open and should have been picked, it doesn’t take but a little rain to knock the grade enough to cover the cost of a good harvest aid program. The quicker I get in my cotton, the quicker I get to my customers’. I’m ready when the cotton is ready,” he says.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com