What impact can an increase in peanut acreage have on a state's cotton crop? Plenty if growers of both crops don't pay particular attention this year to timeliness of harvest, say Extension specialists.

U.S. peanut acreage is expected to grow this year by a considerable 12 percent over 2004, with five of the nine peanut-producing states boosting their acreage in 2005. Leading the way in this rush to plant more peanuts is the Southeast, with a whopping 18 percent increase over last year.

Breaking it down even further, Georgia leads nationally in the race to increase peanut acres, with growers saying they'll plant about 750,000 acres for a 21 percent increase over 2004 plantings. Some of these same farmers also will be planting cotton, with an anticipated acreage this year of 1.2 million acres.

Herein lies the potential problem, according to Steve M. Brown, University of Georgia Extension cotton specialist.

Pressure from tomato spotted wilt virus has gradually shifted peanut planting dates from the latter half of April to the latter half of May. As a result, says Brown, both peanuts and cotton often are ready to harvest at the same time.

One of the key challenges of having peanuts and cotton on the same farm is timeliness of harvest, he says. Physiologically, mature peanuts cannot be left in the field. “Harvest delays in peanuts can be catastrophic. But while not as costly as cotton, harvest delays can significantly reduce cotton yields and both fiber and seed quality.”

One possible way to address this problem, says Brown, is to plant and manage a portion — perhaps 10 percent — of your cotton crop so that it matures and is ready for harvest prior to mid-September, before the initiation of peanut digging. This spreads production risks and harvest, he says. It also provides an opportunity to capture yield and fiber quality that might otherwise be lost.

A typical early management system might include the following:

  • Plant in mid-April, at least by April 20 to 25. Get the crop in early but not too early.

  • Plant early to mid-season varieties. Avoid full maturity varieties such as DP 555 BG/RR. A four-week bloom period is sufficient to make 2.5 bales or more.

  • Don't over-fertilize, particularly with nitrogen. The object is to grow and mature the crop and have the plants begin to decline by mid to late August.

  • Encourage early fruit retention. Don't misuse glyphosate in Roundup Ready systems. Apply mepiquat (Pix, etc.) to increase square and boll retention and tilt the crop towards reproductive rather than vegetative growth. Scout carefully and spray as needed to minimize insect losses.

  • Be prepared to aggressively apply harvest aids as the crop matures. Once the crop nears 60-percent open, and/or five nodes above cracked boll, it is ready. Treat with defoliant and boll opener combinations and then pick as soon as the leaves drop.

Brown warns there are risks associated with an earliness cotton management system, and these all include adverse weather conditions. Of these concerns, early planting ranks as a far lower risk than early harvest, he says.

On the front end, planting in mid-April can sometimes mean increased stand establishment because of cool temperatures and wet soils.

The standard recommendation is that planting can safely proceed when the 4-inch soil temperatures reach 65 degrees F. for three days, and warming conditions are projected over the next several days.

This is a very conservative approach, says Brown, and provides a more-than-reasonable margin of safety. Other, more northerly states, routinely plant under much more adverse conditions and consistently achieve acceptable stands, though often at higher seeding rates, he adds.

Brown advises that growers use common sense and consider temperatures and forecasts when planting.

A second risk, he says, is a June drought. If the crop blooms by June 20, dry weather in late June can be devastating, especially for early maturing varieties in non-irrigated fields, he says. “Keep in mind that mid- to full-maturing varieties generally have greater ‘comeback’ potential and can more readily recover from periodic drought.”

Historical averages, says Brown, indicate the likelihood of significant rainfall around Labor Day. This has motivated University of Georgia scientists in the past to recommend that cotton planting be delayed until after May 10 to avoid or minimize boll opening during this time. If boll opening initiates during a period of rain, high humidity, and overcast conditions, problems with boll rot will increase.

“While averages suggest a greater threat of rain in early September versus late September and October, no one can accurately predict what will happen this year. Delays in recommended peanut planting dates have pushed peanut harvest back to Oct. 1. Thus, there's a window in September to harvest cotton. Again, the risk of rain in early September exists. An equal or even greater risk is cotton that fully opens in late September and remains in the field for weeks while attention is diverted to peanuts.”

Even with the risks, says Brown, the opportunity and possibility of harvesting cotton in early to mid-September is an option that should be considered on many farms.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com