In most cotton-growing regions of West and Central Africa where rainfed conditions prevail, cropping conditions are highly diversified since the crop is planted over an extended period. We studied production and development patterns in 10 cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) varieties to determine the most efficient strategies that could be transformed into breeding traits. Four trials were carried out between 2002 and 2003 in two cotton-growing areas in Benin to compare the 10 varieties at three stand densities and two planting dates. The parameters monitored were the mean first flower opening date (FF), effective flowering time (EFT), plant height at harvest (HH), height to node ratio (HNR), length of fruiting branch (LFB), number of vegetative branches (NVB) and average boll retention at the first position of the fruiting branches (RP1). We identified two ideotypes that yielded better than the others: (i) Mar 88-214 performed well under late planting–high stand density conditions and was characterized by low vegetative growth and early flowering onset, a short flowering period and low RP1; (ii) H 279-1 performed especially well under early planting–low stand density conditions and was characterized by high vegetative growth, late flowering, long EFT and high RP1. We propose a breeding strategy for both ideotypes based on seven indicators with high heritability (FF, HH, HNR, and LFB) or medium heritability (NVB, EFT, and RP1).