Harvest time tricky with cotton, peanuts

It's the worst scenario possible for scores of Southeastern farmers: the cotton bolls have opened, the peanuts are lying on top of the ground, and a series of tropical storms are lined up in the Gulf of Mexico.

Timely harvest almost always is a tricky proposition for farmers who grow both cotton and peanuts. And in the lower Southeast, where small grains and soybeans have fallen out of favor economically, a farmer who grows one crop most likely will grow the other.

"It never works out the way that we want it to," says Phillip Grimes, a southwest Georgia farmer who grows about 500 acres of peanuts and 700 acres of cotton. "Harvest was delayed this year by about 10 inches of rain from tropical storms in September."

Due to his number of acres and labor considerations, Grimes usually finds himself harvesting peanuts and cotton at the same time. "We try to harvest them just like we plant them, covering about 30 acres per day. The recent trend has been to plant cotton earlier and plant peanuts later. We didn't plant any peanuts in April this year due to the threat of tomato spotted wilt virus," he says.

Grimes counts nodes above cracked boll to determine when to begin picking cotton, looking at 10 plants in 10 locations. For peanuts, he relies on the hull-scrape method to tell him when to start digging.

Each year presents a different challenge when it comes to harvesting peanuts and cotton, he says. "We just try to pick whatever is ready," says Grimes.

Most farmers in Georgia don't have the luxury of harvesting peanuts and cotton at the same time, says Don Shurley, University of Georgia Extension economist. "Most farmers leave the cotton to get in the peanuts," he says.

Shurley and Craig Bednarz, an assistant professor of cotton physiology, began a study three years ago to find out how much growers lose by postponing cotton defoliation and harvest.

The cotton plant opens its bolls for about six weeks, says Bednarz. Soon after that time, quality and potential yields begin to decline. Some bolls will open and be subject to decline while others continue to develop.

And, when quality declines, the cotton farmer gets less money for his crop. Last year, notes Shurley, deductions due to poor quality cost Georgia growers $40 million. The 1999 crop was worth about $440 million.

"The main reason we're doing this research is that the fiber properties in Georgia aren't as good as some Mid-South cotton," says Bednarz. "Harvest timing has something to do with this."

The research, he says, could help farmers find a more profitable balance between cotton and peanuts for harvest resources, such as labor, equipment and chemical applications.

At the Coastal Plains Experiment Station in Tifton, Bednarz scheduled harvest at 13 stages of crop maturity. He began harvest-aid applications when 10 percent of the bolls were open and continued every week for 13 weeks. Each plot was mechanically harvested following defoliation.

By adjusting income to compensate for grade deductions, the 1999 economic analysis shows that the per-acre dollar value increased from week one to week six. It peaked at $684 per acre.

Research in 1998 showed that the best time to defoliate cotton was when the crop had 60-percent open bolls. In 1999, the profit peaked at about 70-percent open bolls.

The research results are still early, cautions Bednarz. "The weather changes, and this affects cotton differently from year to year. So, multiple-season data will be needed before we can set a stable guideline for farmers."

Following two tropical storms and several inches of rain this past September, most Georgia farmers were eager to complete their peanut harvest and begin picking cotton. Why pick peanuts before cotton?

"The biggest difference between peanuts and cotton at harvest time is that when peanuts are ready to harvest, you must get them out of the field," says John Beasley, University of Georgia Extension peanut specialist. "Peanuts are very time-sensitive. If they stay out in the field too long, the quality will deteriorate very quickly and the yield will drop dramatically."

Cotton, he says, can stay out in the field for a little while longer. "You certainly don't want it to stay out during a lot of wet weather because the quality of cotton can deteriorate as well," notes Beasley.

If peanuts stay in the ground too long, growers will lose yield in the digging process and quality will decline very quickly, he says. "If a grower has both peanuts and cotton in a field, he has to get his peanuts first."

Maturity dates over-lap in many peanut and cotton varieties, says the agronomist. "With 95-percent-plus of our acreage in the Georgia Green variety, we're seeing a maturity of approximately 140 days. But this year, because of the intense heat early in the season, the peanuts began blooming about 10 days earlier than normal. Therefore, most of our Georgia Green peanuts were coming off at about 130 days.

"In addition, many growers have narrowed their planting window because of tomato spotted wilt virus, and they're attempting to plant most of their crop in a three-week period. Prior to tomato spotted wilt, growers planted peanuts on April 1 if it was warm enough. We went from planting most of our peanuts in a 60-day period to planting them in a 25- to 30-day period.

"We've narrowed our planting window dramatically in the Southeast due to tomato spotted wilt virus, and it's putting even more pressure on growers who must harvest both peanuts and cotton. And, since the dramatic increase in Georgia's cotton acreage which began in the mid-1990s, most of our farmers grow both peanuts and cotton."

Peanuts also are more sensitive to environmental conditions during planting, says Beasley. "You must have moisture to plant peanuts. Peanut seed are delicate, and you're running a risk by putting them in dry soil. Many cotton growers dusted in their seed this year due to a lack of moisture. Cotton can withstand dry soil for a considerably longer period of time than peanuts."

Peanuts and cotton also compete for a grower's attention during the growing season, he adds, especially when herbicides are being applied.

The hull-scrape method, says Beasley, is recommended for determining when to harvest peanuts. "The biggest advantage to using the hull-scrape method, in addition to telling a grower when to harvest, is that it helps a grower order his fields to harvest. We know that environmental conditions, soil types and other factors determine when a crop matures. You may plant a field in order of A-B-C-D, but the crop may be ready to harvest in the reverse order, depending on conditions during the season."

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