How to Plan and Prepare for a Successful Cotton Harvesting Season

Cotton has historically been a labor-intensive crop. In fact, before IH’s success in the cotton combine, growers had to hand-pick fields three to four times each season.

According to Certi-Pik, USA, row spacing should be carefully considered to ensure it fits current harvesting equipment. Wide rows can require more sprays to control weeds.

Planting Date

Cotton plants require a long growing season and warm temperatures to be productive. When a grower makes the decision to plant, he or she must consider the best time to do so. Using a five-day forecast and soil temperature guidelines can help.

Planting when the soil temperature is ideal can ensure that the seeds germinate and establish a healthy stand within the planting window, which is important in minimizing the risk of plant damage from herbicides and/or insect pests. Ideally, cotton should be planted when soil temperatures are 68°F or higher, and the overnight lows are expected to be 62°F or lower for the five days following planting. This combination of conditions allows for quick emergence and minimizes the risk of crusting in clay or sandy soils.

It’s also recommended that a field scout be conducted prior to establishing the crop to identify and control weeds that may impact yield potential. In addition, it is a good idea to use an herbicide that is safe for cotton and will not harm the seedling.

Once the crop is planted, it will take approximately 160 days from planting to harvest. During this time, the bolls will develop and expand, and the lint will be separated from the stalk. This can be challenging, especially when weather conditions are not conducive to crop harvesting.

To prepare for a successful harvest, growers should ensure their equipment is ready. This includes making sure that the harvester is free from any mechanical problems and that it is in good condition. Using a pesticide sprayer that is properly calibrated will also help.

Lastly, it is important to consider the effect that the timing of rainfall throughout the summer will have on the quality and quantity of the cotton crop. Although high yields have been recorded in late-planted cotton, it is impossible to predict how much rain will be received over the summer and whether or not it will reward early-planted crops more than later-planted ones.

Seeding Rates

Cotton is a relatively expensive crop to produce and requires a significant investment in planting. High seed costs, numerous varieties to choose from, and a long season add to this cost. Managing the crop effectively throughout the growing cycle will maximize yield potential and minimize costs. The ability of the crop to grow well and reach maturity is a key factor in the final amount of lint produced per acre. Weather and soil conditions will also majorly affect the final lint production.

The best cotton crops are grown with adequate levels of moisture during the boll formation and maturation stages. Too little or too much moisture during this time can severely reduce the crop’s yield potential. Similarly, excessive temperatures and sunlight can cause the plant to become stressed and will reduce the number of open bolls and yield.

It is important to understand the cotton variety and planting rate requirements for your area. Choosing the right varieties will set you up for success this year. You will need to match the right plant population and seeding rates with your field, soil type, and irrigation capabilities.

When planting, the goal is to have a healthy, vibrant stand free from pest damage. A poor stand can quickly reduce lint yields and may lead to an unfavorable crop. Scouting and monitoring the crop early is critical to identifying problems as they develop and taking corrective action.

A high-quality, certified seed will give you the best chance for a successful stand. Seed should be planted no deeper than 1 inch in soft, moist soils to promote quick emergence and reduce the risk of crusting or disease. Pre-plant burndown herbicide applications will provide a pest-free seedbed environment and help control weeds that can compete with the cotton plant for nutrients and water.

Over the last few years, plant density trials in southwestern Oklahoma and the Rolling and High Plains regions have shown that within the optimal range of 1.5 to 4.5 plants per row ft. in 40-inch rows (about 26,000 to 52,000 seeds/acre), many plants will reach harvestable bolls. However, achieving this target requires a combination of extreme faith in the vacuum planter, good soil conditions, and seed quality at planting.

Soil Preparation

Cotton requires firm, loose, weed-free soil that is not too deep to facilitate plant growth. The ideal seedbed is sandy loam or better, with a low clay layer that allows roots to penetrate the water table. Deep tillage or bed preparation is not recommended on this type of soil due to the risk of crusting and harrowing, which can limit root development and crop emergence. However, reduced tillage may be desirable on heavily infested cotton ground or fields with a history of root rot problems.

Deep tillage also reduces the ability of cotton to accumulate and hold sufficient moisture. As a result, producers must monitor field conditions closely and plant adequate moisture levels for germination and emergence. Attempting to chase moisture by planting deeper can result in poor stand establishment and herbicide injury, especially if the initial rains contain significant amounts of herbicide residuals.

In no-till situations, optimum planting depth is often achieved by bedding the rows 4-6 weeks before planting into a cover crop or old crop residue that provides warmth and moisture to the soil surface. This method of planting is more effective in breaking up developing compaction zones and allowing for optimal soil-to-seed contact.

Soil condition at the time of boll opening is an important factor in the quality and value of lint fiber. Insufficient sunshine and moisture can reduce the number of open bolls, while excessive rainfall at this point can reduce yield and increase weediness.

Harvest-aid products during the ginning process are critical for a successful cotton harvest. These chemicals help remove leaves from the plant and allow the bolls to be separated without too much “stickiness,” which can reduce lint value significantly.

The defoliation timing is important because a good defoliant will help reduce the amount of leaf material present in the harvested lint. The quality of the defoliant and weather conditions at the time of harvest are also important factors in determining the success of the harvest-aid treatment. Ideally, a desiccant should be applied 7 to 10 days before harvest to provide maximum effectiveness.


A successful cotton crop requires timely irrigation. It takes time for cotton to ripen and for a boll to open, so the longer the plant stays in the field, the more it will be exposed to weather conditions that can impact fiber characteristics such as strength, length, and micronaire.

This is why irrigating at the right time is important to avoid excessive water stress. According to Paul DeLaune, an environmental soil scientist at Texas A&M AgriLife Research in Chillicothe, reducing the amount of irrigation applied to cotton early in the season can help save a significant amount of energy used to pump water to the field.

When deciding how much water to apply and when it’s important to consider the water needs of the entire cotton crop and the available groundwater supply. A study at the AgriLife Research-Chillicothe Station found that a well-timed, deficit irrigation strategy can maximize crop yield and reduce water use.

The study, which was presented on Aug. 30 at the Rolling Plains Summer Field Day, analyzed the effects of different irrigation termination dates on cotton yield and crop water use efficiency (IWUE). Using a modeled crop water use index, it was found that an 85% ET-replacement strategy with deficit/excess water management resulted in the best performance for cotton yield and IWUE.

DeLaune also discussed the benefits of utilizing sensor-based irrigation scheduling tools to improve irrigation application and scheduling decisions. These tools can be used to identify the optimum watering rate for cotton based on soil moisture levels and other weather conditions. In addition, these tools can be used to determine the appropriate sizing of equipment for optimal operation and minimize weed populations.

Another tool that can be used to minimize weeds in cotton is the use of a pre-emergence herbicide. When weeds are properly controlled, they will not compete with the crop for nutrients and water, and this can lead to greater yields. Utilizing a seed treatment product that can protect against early-season diseases, nematodes, and difficult insects is also beneficial.

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