One of the driest springs on record continues to perplex cotton producers in the lower Southeast as they enter the mid-season mark with many questions about how to handle fertilization of the 2011 crop.

“With the drought this year, we have a lot of late-planted cotton with uneven stands,” says Glen Harris, University of Georgia Extension soil scientist. “We’re getting a lot of questions about how to fertilize with nitrogen when you’ve got skippy stands or non-uniform plant stands.

“I’d say when the older cotton gets ready, I might go ahead and pull the trigger because that might be the cotton that does best for you. The only way you can hurt really small cotton with nitrogen is if you dribble right onto it and burn it.”

Harris was one of the featured speakers during the recent Sunbelt Agricultural Expo Field Day, held in Moultrie, Ga. Those attending this year’s event got the opportunity to see about 200 acres of cotton and the latest in varieties from Deltapine, Bayer, Americot and Dow, in addition to the latest research from the University of Georgia’s Extension Cotton Team.

Harris says his work at Expo is focused on potassium nutrition and its interaction with new cotton varieties. “Newer varieties do need a fair bit of potassium, and we’ve had our share of potassium problems. I’ve shifted the emphasis this year to how some of these new varieties might respond to some of the things we’re doing with potassium. We’re splitting applications, foliar-feeding potassium, and foliar-feeding early and late,” he says.

Turning to current crop conditions, Harris says there’s a lot of late-planted June cotton in Georgia, and there are several key points that should be remembered when adjusting to this situation.

Growers shouldn’t try to rush the crop by over-fertilizing with nitrogen, says Harris.

“Unfortunately you cannot fertilize your way out of a drought. I wish you could. And in fact, trying to rush a late-planted crop with extra nitrogen can actually backfire and delay maturity making matters even worse,” he says.

Harris advises producers to go with conservative side-dress nitrogen rates on dryland (50 to 60 pounds per acre depending on how much preplant nitrogen was applied) according to yield goals.

“If the rain situation improves as the crop progresses, you can always make up some ground with foliar — up to 20 pounds per acre if you use feed grade urea and are willing to foliar feed more than once.”

Side-dress nitrogen should be applied early, he says. The normal “window” for side-dressing nitrogen is from first square to first bloom.