Parents, forget sending Junior out to milk the cows and weed-eat ditch banks during summer break. Instead, hand him a Psion, your county Extension agent's phone number and then point him towards a cotton field.
Jokingly, Mike Bryant says his son, Lee, “has a mean daddy! I thought this was not only a way to teach him about cotton physiology, but also to help with the family farm. He really has come through with this big-time.”
The “this” Bryant is referring to is CotMan, a plant-mapping program developed by researchers in Arkansas. Lee has been running the program for three years now. He started when he was only 13.
“Lee's daddy was interested in running the CotMan program and Lee was home for the summer. So, Lee got the job,” says Extension agent April Fisher, who works out of the Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) office.
For the first summer, with Arkansas Extension cotton specialist Bill Robertson's help, Fisher worked with Lee, showing him how the program works. He learned how to use the Psion (the hand-held computer carried through fields) and how to do the simple stand counts and went from there.
“Lee had no real background in cotton, which was fine. He's a smart kid, but you don't have to be a rocket scientist to run CotMan. The first summer, pretty much every week, I went in and mapped plants with him. I guess it was like tutoring for a couple of hours,” says Fisher.
“It wasn't too hard, even at the beginning. By the second year I was pretty proficient at it,” says Lee.
The Bryant farm is about 750 acres of cotton, 550 acres of soybeans and 550 acres of rice a few miles south of Pine Bluff. Lee is a fourth generation farmer working land that has been in the family since 1928.
“Lee does all the data collecting and then brings me the figures and charts. We go over those together and make decisions on what course to take,” says Mike.
For that much acreage, and working alone, it takes Lee between half a day and a full day to gather needed data. One of the reasons it doesn't take longer is most of the Bryant fields are in blocks which cuts down travel.
Cotton is very systematic in the manner it grows. CotMan takes advantage of that fact. Still, for someone new to the physiology of the plant — much less a 13-year-old — it may seem overwhelming.
During the first part of the growing season, CotMan requires square map data (plant mapping). As first bloom appears, concerns switch to node above white flower (NAWF).
Field collected data is downloaded into a desktop computer. Crunched data is then available to farmers for decision-making.
“CotMan is a shortening of the words ‘cotton management.’ It's a tool used to help manage cotton plants. The main thing about the program is it helps identify stress. The early-season portion of the program is called SquareMan. The later portion is BollMan,” says Robertson.
The two questions most people have early in the year are: are my plants growing at the proper rate and how is square retention looking?
CotMan addresses both of those questions. By going through and monitoring the rate new nodes are developing, the growth rate becomes apparent. If the growth rate is slower than what is normal, that generally means the plants are stressed. Farmers need to get in the field and identify the source of that stress.
“If nodes are developing at a rate faster than we'd expect, there's something else going on that we need to take care of. There are good and bad stresses. Boll load is a good stress. Moisture — too much or too little — aphids and spider mites are bad stresses.
“There are all kinds of variables. If plant bugs knock bolls off the plant, the plant will actually grow too fast.
“It's like a car running off the road. If you catch it quick enough, you can right the car and keep on going. Don't catch it quick enough and you end up in the ditch. That can be disastrous,” says Robertson.
Fisher says CotMan will pick things up faster than the eye or a scout will. It gives farmers the ability to pick up square shed very quickly.
When using CotMan, there are four field sites to look at. This isn't something you do from inside the truck. It takes footsteps, says Robertson.
The NAWF gives a good indication of what some of the stresses are. That's particularly true of the good stress of boll load.
“We want the NAWF to progress at a given rate to NAWF 5. If the plant drops to 5 too fast, that indicates we have too much stress. Oftentimes that means a lack of water,” says Robertson.
If a lack of water is the case, the last thing farmers want to do is put out additional foliar feed.
Conversely, if the NAWF line is running too flat, that means the boll load isn't a drain on the plant. If NAWF lines are running flat, the plants are able to put a new node on at the same rate flowers are moving up the plant.
“That tells us the boll load is small and the plant isn't having enough demand put on it. We can use NAWF numbers to make decisions on foliar feed or additional soil applied nitrogen. That helps push the plant and alleviates problems later on with a plant that's too green and difficult to defoliate at the end of the season,” says Robertson.
The main objective with NAWF is to identify the last effective boll population.
“You're finding the last money boll. When NAWF 5 arrives, the white flowers represent the last bolls that contribute significantly to yield and profit. The bolls that come along after that are smaller and usually of lesser quality,” says Robertson.
When the last money bolls are identified, fields start accumulating heat units. When a clean field acquires 350 heat units, growers can terminate insecticide applications for three fruit feeders: budworms, bollworms and boll weevils. Fields still need additional protection and vigilance against leaf feeders like armyworms and loopers.
“We've got research ongoing to better identify when we can terminate irrigation. I don't think that's going to be as cut-and-dried as with insecticide termination.
“One criteria to use in timing defoliation is 850 heat units beyond NAWF 5. I won't defoliate based on just one thing, but I do like to see heat units beyond cut-out, percent open boll, node above cracked boll, and I also like to boll-slice. Two of those telling me it's time is usually enough,” says Robertson.
In Arkansas, the thing that brings most people into the program is the insecticide termination. “That part is extremely valuable for farmers. With the expense of farming, everyone wants to know when spraying can be terminated. The longer you go, the more expensive the spraying gets because typically you're not just treating a bollworm population but budworms too. Expense for spraying can run between $10 and $15 per acre,” says Fisher.
At one time, area farmers spraying during the first week of September wasn't uncommon at all, says Fisher. “This has helped changed that and kept a lot more money in farmers' pockets.”
The CotMan program is free. To get a copy, just go to an Arkansas county Extension office. Agents will also go out and help set farmers up, show them how to use the program.
Saving money at the end of the season is the draw to getting hooked into this program. But when farmers start using SquareMan, they see how the early-season component can make money in the end, says Fisher.
Back to Lee. “He picked this up quickly and has done a great job with it. He came into this cold but overcame that,” says Fisher.
If parents want to teach their kids on a bunch of different levels, they could do worse than to make CotMan one of their chores. Computers, botany, and decision-making all figure in the mix.
There is a time factor and learning curve, says Robertson. “I think a team of two can probably get through 100 fields in a week. As far as the learning curve, collecting data is pretty simple. Interpreting output is what takes a little while. Traditionally, the first year is for getting used to the program — the light bulb hasn't quite come on. The second year you see things coming together and the light bulb comes on. By the third year, farmers are really cooking with this and know what to use it for and how it translates to their operation. That may seem like a long time, but truly, the benefits are evident from year one.”