It all starts with a good seedbed and precision planting to help reach that perfect stand, says Sandy Stewart, Extension cotton specialist at Louisiana State University.

He and Joel Faircloth, Extension cotton specialist at Virginia Tech University, moderated workshops for the lower and upper portions of the Cotton Belt at the recent Beltwide Cotton Conference in New Orleans, LA. These workshops were attended by more than 60 cotton agronomists, entomologists, plant physiologists, plant pathologists and other cotton experts from across the belt.

They have worked the past two years to determine the Best Management Practices (BMPs) for a high-yielding, high-quality crop.

“The group's goal is to help growers focus on the BMPs in the new, contemporary cotton production systems,” says Faircloth. “Recommendations for the first 40 days address the changing pest spectrum, season-long pest management systems, overall plant health and earliness with the ultimate goal of high-yield and high-quality fiber.”

Proper seedbed preparation and planting are among the initial key areas of the First 40 Days. “Growers need to plant with precision, not just speed,” says Stewart. “Seed should be uniformly spaced at a rate of 2.5-4 seeds/ft.”

That planting rate should produce a minimum of 30,000 plants/acre. When planting earlier into cooler soils, the seeding rate should be increased. However, a rate of more than 60,000 is too high.

“There should be good seed-to-soil contact, warm soil temperatures and adequate soil moisture,” says Stewart. “Planting less than 2 or 2.5 seeds/ft. can significantly delay maturity.”

He suggests these primary factors (part of the “First 40 Days” recommendations), which are important in helping establish a good stand:

  • Soil and air temperatures should be optimum, according to state Extension guidelines. A soil temperature of 65°F at a depth of 4 in. for three consecutive days is optimal, although not always realistic for early planting. Depending upon growing conditions, a four-week delay in planting can equate to only a one-week delay in flowering.

  • Soil moisture is optimum and seedbeds are firm for good seed-to-soil contact.

  • Seed quality is good. Plant the best quality seed first in cooler soils.

  • Planting depth of ¾ to 1½ in., depending upon adequate moisture for germination.

  • Pest-free seedbed environment. Preplant burndown herbicide application is made at least three weeks prior to planting to ensure no green matter is on the seedbed.

  • Good vegetation management. All potential host plants/weeds in and around fields should be controlled to eliminate sources of insect pests.

  • Adequate soil temperature available for a vigorous plant.

“One-half of the variable costs and annual fixed costs are spent before or during the first 40 days of cotton production,” says Stewart. “So planting with precision pays.”

These and other First 40 Days recommendations may seem elementary for even the newest growers. However, with new pressures from insects, potential weed resistance and the demand for higher fiber quality by foreign buyers who buy 60-70% of the U.S. production, following BMPs can easily boost return per acre, says Faircloth.

For further information, go to www.cottonexperts.com.

(Editor's note: This is the first of several articles concerning the vital importance of cotton's “First 40 Days” Best Management Practices.)