What's the secret to cutting cotton pesticide costs? Better management, according to consultants across the Cotton Belt. It may be a big innovation or a small one, but fine-tuning production practices can improve your bottom line.

Timing is everything, according to consultant Victor Roth, Roth Farm Service, Malden, MO.

"Plant early, on time, get the crop up and out of the field," says Roth. "That will avoid problems with late-season insects. Properly timed applications in season are also essential.

"You have to stop a pest before the plant loses any fruit," he says. "Once a square aborts, cotton will try to replace it. That will delay the crop, extend the season and add to production expense."

A good example of timeliness is pinhead square applications of malathion to control boll weevils. Roth says it's essential to catch the weevils before they can reproduce.

"That allows growers to postpone midseason applications for one or two weeks," he adds. "And if the weather cooperates, they may not have to spray again for weevils at all. The key is getting that pinhead square treatment out on time."

Boll weevil eradication gets high marks from consultants. Though it may increase expenses on the front end, the big dividends come in subsequent years. The early weevil sprays wipe out beneficial insects and make integrated pest management difficult to implement. With weevil eradication, the ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for those sprays. Protect the beneficial species and growers can cut the use of pesticides for many other pest problems.

Consultants admit this is really a long-term approach to management.

At the other end of the Delta, consultant Harold Lambert of Lambert Agricultural Consulting, Innis, LA, puts variety selection at the top of his management list.

"Stay away from many of the familiar favorites that produce rank growth," Lambert advises. "That will reduce the need for growth regulators, which add to production expense, and help reduce the threat of boll rot."

These and other consultants agree that growers are usually better off with early maturing varieties. Manage for earliness and eliminate many late-season expenses.

Site selection is also on everyone's list.

"We are starting to put cotton on some of our heavier soils, and it's doing quite well," says Lambert.

The value is that rankness is not a problem. Also, with crop rotation growers can use different herbicides and clean up problem weeds that are more expensive and difficult to control in cotton.

As growers fine-tune their management practices, here are other cost cutters to remember:

* Check and calibrate equipment.

* Follow the recommendation on the label or in extension service bulletins on use of oils and surfactants to enhance pesticide performance.

* Hit weeds when they are small.

* Avoid incorporation delays.

* Avoid wet soils. Dinitroaniline herbicides (Prowl, Treflan, etc.) degrade more quickly under these conditions and potential for compaction increases.

* Don't sell the cultivator. Cold, hard steel is still the best choice for some weed problems.

* Try varieties with the Boll Guard and Roundup Ready traits, but don't go wall to wall the first year. Get some experience and compare cost vs. performance.