Planting your cotton crop a few weeks earlier could increase your yields by as much as 10 percent, according to a USDA study.

Bill Pettigrew, plant physiologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Stoneville, Miss., has spent the last five years testing the early-planted cotton production system in small-scale research plots at the USDA research facility.

"You're trading risk for risk, but the yield advantages we're seeing with the early-planted cotton production system may be enough incentive for growers to put a small portion of their acreage into this system," he says.

Pettigrew's current studies grew out of previous research, which suggested the yield potential for cotton could be limited by a shortage of sunlight during critical plant development stages. In order to counter these effects, Pettigrew began trying to shift peak bloom in cotton from mid-July to about the third week of June, when the summer solstice occurs.

While Pettigrew has been unable to shift peak bloom as early as the third week of June, he has been able to move it about 10 days earlier than it would normally occur with conventionally planted May cotton. Under his early-planted cotton production system he has found that, while sunlight appears to be only a minor factor in cotton yield potential, planting cotton earlier does offer a number of other benefits.

The first and most obvious benefit Pettigrew has found with an early-planted cotton production system is increased yield. Specifically, he has documented a 10 percent yield increase in four out of the last five years in the early-planted cotton, as compared to May 1-planted cotton. The only year the early-planted cotton didn't yield better than the May-planted cotton, the cotton was subject to a spell of nighttime temperatures in the 30-degree range shortly after emergence.

In addition to increased yields, Pettigrew says, growers planting cotton during the first week of April may be able to increase their bottom line by avoiding some normal expenses. "By planting earlier, we're producing the better part of the boll crop using good June and July rains. We're also avoiding the very high temperatures in late July and August when the cotton would normally be hitting its peak bloom period," he says. "Growers may also benefit economically with this system by eliminating one irrigation application or late-season insect application due to the earlier crop termination."

An earlier planting date may also result in a considerably earlier harvest. Pettigrew says he has seen an average seven- to 10-day difference in cotton maturity with the early-planting cotton production system.

Despite the economic incentives of planting earlier, there are risks to planting Delta cotton during the beginning of April. According to Pettigrew, however, the risks can, for the most part, be minimized.

First, he says, growers considering the early production system should obtain the highest-quality seed possible. "Seed quality is important because you are putting the seed in a high-stress situation," he says. "It doesn't seem to matter whether you choose a late-maturing variety or an early-maturity variety, because both seem to do well in this system and we've seen little difference between the two so far. What is important is the quality of the seed you plant."

Pettigrew also recommends growers invest in a good fungicide package, including a seed treatment, and an in-furrow fungicide application at planting to reduce the risk of seedling disease attacking the young cotton crop.

"If you can get an adequate stand of cotton, you've gotten over the major hurdle with this system. That means protecting your young cotton seedlings from both disease and early season insect damage, which can delay crop maturity," he says. "You should also only plant your cotton on well-drained land, because if you have standing water at all you are going to have trouble getting a stand."

In addition, Pettigrew says, it is imperative for growers to keep a close eye on the weather forecast for the time period immediately after planting. "Watch the weather forecast. If heavy rains and cool temperatures are predicted in the coming week, you'd be well-advised to wait to plant."