Virginia grower considers update for cotton program

The most challenging growing season he's faced since he began growing cotton in 1994 has Newsomes, Va., producer Tommy Drake considering some significant changes for the coming year.

"I'm having more and more trouble with weeds, especially nutgrass," Drake says. "Sicklepod is showing up in some fields where I've never seen it. The first couple of years I grew cotton, I had real good weed control. Here lately I've had a lot more trouble keeping weeds and grasses under control. I'm going to switch to Roundup Ready cotton next year. I know several other farmers who are talking about doing the same thing."

Weed control was not Drake's only challenge this year. A cool spring and an early dry spell got his crop off to a slow start. Then it started raining. Twelve inches of rain in June leached away much of the nitrogen that should have been available to set and fill bolls. Drake called on Cotton Agronomist Johnny Parker from Commonwealth Gin to work out a recovery plan.

Depending on the soil types and the depth to clay, Drake had cotton from waist high to less than a foot tall in mid-July. Even the best looking cotton was showing signs of nitrogen deficiency, with lower leaves turning yellow. In extremely sandy areas, cotton leaves were yellow from top to bottom and plants were growing slowly.

"We got behind on the nitrogen, starting last fall, when we got all the rain from the hurricanes," Parker says.

"A lot of nitrogen and sulfur leached out of the soil. We lost a lot more than a many farmers realized. We usually count on having at least 20 to 40 pounds of residual nitrogen from the peanuts. We lost most of that last fall and the heavy rains this summer leached out a lot of what Tommy applied this year. He needed additional nitrogen on most of his cotton."

Figuring he needs about 120 pounds of total nitrogen to make two bales of cotton, Drake applied 80 to 85 pounds of nitrogen in preplant and side-dress fertilizer. He counted on around 40 pounds of residual nitrogen. When the first nitrogen deficiency symptoms began showing up in July, Drake knew he needed to apply additional nitrogen.

"As bolls start pulling more nitrogen from the plant, nitrogen deficiency symptoms start showing up fast," Parker says. "Quite a few farmers in this part of Virginia broadcast ammonium sulfate over their fields, or dribbled 24S down the middles. Most of them needed 20 to 40 pounds of nitrogen. Some made foliar applications of urea. Those who got the nitrogen on earliest, before nitrogen deficiency symptoms were real obvious, got the best results."

Slow growing, nitrogen deficient cotton probably had something to do with the increased weed problems Drake experienced this season. But he says he has seen a steady increase in weed pressure in his cotton and peanut rotation for the last several years. He rips and beds both his peanuts and cotton and has planted primarily DP 51 cotton.

"I've been putting on Prowl with my preplant fertilizer and then coming back with Cotoran broadcast," Drake says.

"Then I'll try to clean it up with Bladex and MSMA applied with drop nozzles as a directed spray. I'll cultivate a couple of times with an S-tine cultivator. That has worked pretty well until fairly recently. Now I have one farm where I've got a real problem with nutsedge, morningglory, cocklebur, ragweed and some sicklepod. Sicklepod is probably the weed I fear the most. I'm trying to pull them up whenever I see them. Next year I'm going to switch to all Roundup Ready cotton to see if I can't get back on top of some of these problem weeds."

Drake stuck with conventional cotton varieties from the start because he was satisfied with the yields and he had no trouble controlling weeds. Now he is convinced he can maintain his yields and improve his weed control by changing systems.

"I have averaged as high as 1,100 pounds per acre and I've only fallen under 800 pounds two years since I started growing cotton. We made 750 pounds last year even with all the fall rains from the hurricanes. But, with just me and my father (George Thomas Drake), I think we're going to come out ahead switching to Roundup Ready cotton, at least for a while. I don't think it pays to stick with just one weed control system forever. It doesn't take these weeds long to adapt to whatever we use to kill them, Drake says."

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