You'll find as many theories about optimum cotton planting dates as there are cotton farmers.

As the 1999 season wound down, lots of talk in the Southeast centered on planting cotton earlier with shorter-season varieties. Then, with a good enough full-season crop to surprise many farmers at season's end, some began to back off the push to earlier cotton.

"I don't know what's going to happen now. A lot of the full-season cotton last year came in with better results than we anticipated," says Tommy Walton, a consultant at Colquitt, GA.

In north Alabama, farmers already plant cotton early - too early, some observers think - and they'll stick to that. "Farmers here plant some a little before the best window, hoping that when it's all done it will average out about right," says Charles Burmester, Alabama extension cotton specialist.

"If you look at the rainfall pattern, farmers in north Alabama need to have cotton up around the first or second week of May. They're probably going to have to plant some in early to mid-April to hit that. Their biggest advantage in planting early is to hit the rainfall window," Burmester says.

Down in south Alabama, near the Gulf Coast, farmers have switched planting-date philosophies because of their own peculiar weather challenges.

"In the extreme southern part of the state, they used to plant earlier than they do now," says Burmester. "Now they're going later, delaying planting, to try to avoid hurricane season. They've had some problems with hurricanes and there's not much you can do about them. But if the cotton is not open when the hurricane hits, it tends to go through the storm in better shape."

Back in southwest Georgia, where peanuts rank first on farmers' economic scale, they've been pushing peanut planting back to mid-May to try to avoid thrips-vectored tomato spotted wilt virus. On some farms that means cotton gets planted earlier to avoid harvest-season conflicts.

"You don't want to have cotton standing in the field ready to harvest and waiting for peanut harvest to finish up," says Steve Brown, Georgia extension cotton specialist. "So some farmers are going with early cotton varieties that let them spread labor during harvest. The idea is to get some cotton out before they get heavy into peanut harvest. Whether this is feasible, time will tell. A lot of times, planting early doesn't mean harvesting early. The goal with cotton is to make it quick and get out. They put priority on peanuts."

Soil moisture is another factor pushing some farmers to earlier cotton. "Once soil temperature is warm enough, soil moisture is the issue on dryland fields," Brown says. "May can be terribly dry, so planting dryland fields earlier may be a good idea. I still believe that, for irrigated fields, a May 10 planting date is best."

Rick LaGuardia, Colquitt, GA, thinks planting in early or mid-April might help get his dryland cotton off to a better start. "It all depends on the weather, though," he says.

"Throughout my farming history, the best cotton I've ever made was planted mid- to late April," LaGuardia says. "The earlier planting gives the cotton more opportunity to get rain. But if it's cool, I won't plant early. Soil temperature has to be above 65 degrees."

Many southwest Georgia farmers will mix it up this year, planting several varieties at different times, according to Walton.

"With the new genetics available to us, we've not had a great number of years' experience with the Bt and Roundup Ready varieties and we find we don't know a lot about them," Walton says. "Sometimes a variety will do well on a farm, then you go a few farms over and it isn't doing well. We don't know why. So I think we're going to see them plant several varieties across the farm and space planting dates out because of harvest issues."