It happens to virtually every cotton grower. You've established a good stand, only to have it flooded by heavy rains or damaged by a late freeze. Or that perfect crop in late May is pelted to shreds by hail.

Mother Nature's wrath can be cruel. But good farmers can often salvage damaged crops or come back with soybeans or other alternates to hopefully make ends meet.

"The date of the catastrophic event will have tremendous influence on any decisions that must be made," says William McCarty, a Mississippi State University agronomist. "When determining whether to keep the cotton, replant it or replace it with soybeans, location in the Cotton Belt must be considered."

Texas A&M agronomist Calvin Trostle and his assistant, Jim Barber, see several replanting options, including soybeans, grain sorghum, sunflowers or sesame.

"But don't give up on hailed-on cotton too soon," says Trostle. "Our cotton experts suggest cotton may be worth saving with as little as 1½ healthy plants/ft. in a row. It could still make acceptable yields given good growing conditions."

Good yields can be made with low plant populations if distribution of normal plants is uniform in fields with productive soils, McCarty says.

"Plant populations in the low 20,000 (plants per acre) range, or as low as one per row foot with no or few skips, may maintain good yield potential," he says. "But if a large percentage of those plants are severely damaged, or if the stand is broken with numerous skips, replanting would be in order at populations below 30,000."

When counting plants, exclude plants that have stem damage. McCarty says this could cause lodging later in the season, and plants may die as a result of high temperatures and disease pressure.

Again, calendar dates are critical. "A stand you would plow up on May 1 would probably be kept on May 27," he says.

Plus, with Bt cotton and nearly Beltwide boll weevil eradication programs in place, there's probably less financial risk in replanting cotton, which before had faced heavy insect pressure later in the year. "Bt cotton varieties give protection against budworms, suppression of bollworms and some light suppression on armyworms," says McCarty.

"Boll weevil eradication will provide late-season protection against the weevil. And if a field is in an active eradication zone and is to receive sprays for diapause, late-season plant bugs will also be controlled," he adds. This should help establish a good top crop, which will lower potential weather problems later in the season.

If cotton stands are a lost cause, growers can come back with soybeans as late as July 5 in the Southwest. In Mississippi and many Southern states, replanting beans comes much earlier. "A damaged stand that may be replanted in cotton on May 5 could be one to either keep or replant in soybeans on about June 10," says McCarty.

A&M's Barber says that, while some alternative crops are susceptible to residual damage from chemicals applied to cotton, soybeans are less apt to be hurt. "Since yellow herbicide was likely applied for cotton, grain sorghum or other crops will require the furrow to be ‘busted’ out to help prevent injury," he says. "But you can plant soybeans right back in."

Short-season corn is also an option, provided there's ample water from irrigation or anticipated rainfall. And if you have to switch to another crop, make sure you know how this will affect your government farm program participation and insurance.

McCarty's rule of thumb, which he claims works better each year: "If you have enough cotton left to make the decision to replant difficult, you probably have enough to keep."