Imagine wrapping up cotton harvest before the Labor Day holiday. In a year like 2001, an ultra-early harvest would have likely substantially decreased both the stress level and the amount of aspirin consumed by many Delta cotton farmers.
Providing such an option is the goal of USDA researcher Bill Molin at the Agricultural Research Service complex in Stoneville, Miss. Molin, who is experimenting with the ultra-early planting of cold tolerant cottonseed in an ultra-narrow row production system, says he is excited about this potentially new tool for growers.
“Can we make cotton earlier? We have other crops like soybeans that are available in different, very distinct maturity groups and we can push those crops earlier by planting varieties selected for earliness,” he says. “Selecting several different maturity groups allows a grower to stagger crop harvest, which lets him use his equipment over a longer period of time and perhaps farm more acres.”
In his research plots, Molin planted the ultra-early, ultra-narrow row cotton April 5 and began harvesting the week of Aug. 25. The variety chosen for his research is a cold tolerant experimental cottonseed developed by Seed Source, a private breeding company in Stoneville, Miss.
“In cotton, we have some varieties that are indeterminate and grow continuously throughout the season and some that are more determinate in nature and tend to cut out a little earlier. What Seed Source has done is find one that is extremely determinate and it cuts out earlier, but it also has the added advantage of being able to germinate under cooler conditions therefore it can be planted earlier,” says Molin.
“If ultra-early, ultra-narrow row cotton is accepted and growers adopt this technology what it does is give them more tools. It also allows cotton farmers to think differently about how they are going to raise their crops,” he says. “That's how we are going to push agriculture forward is to think differently, get out of the typical routine that we do every year and try new and different things.”
Although Molin says the switch to his ultra-early production system may not be the right move for every farmer, he says a new grower or a grower in need of new production equipment may want to consider making the transition. “Ultra-narrow row requires a slightly different way of thinking. It's sort of like the transition from the wide-row beans of 30 years ago to the narrow row beans most growers plant today. It takes time to make that change and acquire different equipment. So those sorts of changes are going to be slow, and in a farm economy like we have right now it is going to be even slower,” he says.
After cotton growers make the change to ultra-narrow row, and do it once or twice successfully, Molin says they quickly see the advantages of the system. “That's what I think is so exciting about this research is that now growers may be able to plant ultra-narrow row cotton even earlier.”
Planting ultra-narrow row cotton in early April changes the insecticide utilization, weed spectrum, and irrigation requirements for a cotton crop, according to Molin.
“Once an ultra-early, ultra-narrow row crop is made, which is probably about July 15, you really don't need any insecticide treatments, which is a substantial cost savings for the grower,” he says. “This production system also changes our thinking about weed control. We're planting before a lot of the summer weeds have a chance to germinate. And, one of the nice things about ultra narrow row is that it closes the canopy very early — 30 days versus 60 to 90 days for wide row — which puts a lot of shading on the ground inhibiting weed growth.”
In addition, Molin says the ultra-early, ultra-narrow cotton system may allow growers to terminate irrigation as early as mid-June. “In most years we don't have any significant rains after July 15 which could mean substantially reduced irrigation costs.”
Despite the cost savings outlined by Molin, he admits there are many questions still left unanswered and there are some disadvantages to the system, including seed costs that are more than twice that of conventionally planted cotton.
“This cotton grows over a shorter period of time and so must be managed more intensively during that shorter period of time but I think the rewards are just as great,” he says. “We've had cotton in our research that made two-and-one-half bales per acre.”