Cottonseed companies working on new varieties in Texas High Plains nurseries may have suffered a year's worth of setbacks this season from poor planting conditions and hail storms that wiped out many of their research and seed increase plots.

But company representatives say the losses come with the territory as they try to develop cotton lines that will adapt to some of the harsh conditions that hammered plains cotton this year. Some estimates indicate the area lost more than 1 million acres and possibly more than 1.2 million bales from a combination of weather disasters.

Cotton breeders from across the Belt and from five foreign countries got a first-hand look at some of the damage but also some of the progress under way at seed company research facilities around Lubbock during the recent Cotton Breeders' Tour.

“This was the first time in six years that we lost our main nursery site,” said Steve Calhoun, Stoneville (now Emergent Genetics USA). “Fortunately, we make sure we back up our nursery material in Arizona.”

Calhoun said Stoneville's focus is to breed varieties that adapt to the often harsh weather of the High Plains. “We're interested in storm-resistant cotton. We've seen a lot of picker-type cotton come into the area in recent years as farmers look for high yield and improved quality characteristics. Stripper types usually are not as competitive as pickers. But we have some storm-proof lines that produce yields competitive with picker cotton. We're also looking at nematode resistance.”

Delbert Hess, Bayer Crop Science, says the company's FiberMax cotton breeding work is geared toward developing varieties for the High Plains with improved quality characteristics. He also expressed concern that picker types may not always perform as well as has been the case the past few years.

Heat units concern

“We've had above average heat unit accumulations for the last four or five years, but we wonder how those varieties will look in an average heat unit year. We average much fewer heat units in this area than do most places across the Cotton Belt.”

Hess said the FiberMax effort in the High plains includes five nursery locations. “One is devoted to Liberty Link work. And we have others devoted to Roundup Ready, Roundup Ready BollGard, and new transgenic traits. We have a large breeding program.”

Margaret Hamill says she's looking at bacterial blight resistance in FiberMax lines and also fruiting habits of stripper and picker cotton varieties.

Hess said weather took out four of the five nurseries this year. “The main nursery held enough stand so we didn't have to replant,” he said.

Associated Farmer's Delinting is an independent seed company that “got into the transgenic cotton market kinda late,” according to company spokesman Bo Downer.

“We decided to get into licensing and acquisition of existing varieties,” Downer said. “We're marketing a variety for another independent cotton breeding company, H & W Genetex. We couldn't be in the transgenic business without their cooperation.”

Downer said two varieties, 3511 and 3602 are in field tests. “This was the introductory year for 3511. We expect to have more available for growers next year. He also expects 3602 to be available for commercial planting in 2004.

Winter nurseries

Downer said weather took out some of their plots, “but we didn't lose a lot of lines. Now, we want to cycle into BollGard II and Roundup Flex materials as quickly as possible with winter nurseries.”

Richard Sheetz, Paymaster breeder at Hale Center, said expansion of cotton into the northern section of the High Plains will continue as farmers look for crops that will compete with corn and milo but use less water.

“We're looking at early-maturing cotton varieties that produce higher yields and the best fiber quality possible within the limitations of that maturity range.”

He's also concerned that the unusually high number of heat units the area has enjoyed for the past few years may not indicate a long-term trend. “In the past few years, farmers have been going to longer-maturity varieties but if we get back to average heat unit accumulation, we could be in trouble.”

Sheetz said efforts also include lines more adaptable to farms south of Lubbock, which receive “significantly more heat units, 2,000 to 2,200 per year compared to around 1,500 to 1,800 at Hale Center.

He said the main nursery was hit by spring hail but they managed to maintain some plots. Off-site locations were not as fortunate. “We have three locations away from our main facility,” Sheetz said. “We lost one to hail in the spring and another in late summer.”

Gary Rea, at the Delta and Pine Land Co.'s breeding facility at Haskell, Texas, south of Lubbock in the Rolling Plains, is looking for varieties adaptable to his area's conditions.

“We're working on breeding lines adapted to Rolling Plains conditions,” Rea said. “We're interested in a wide range of conditions extending from Haskell to Altus, Okla., and down to San Angelo. Yield continues to be the No. 1 factor but we're also looking for improved fiber quality, as well as disease and insect resistance.”

Rea says DPL is testing the first line of transgenic cotton designed specifically for Rolling Plains conditions.

“Historically, breeders develop varieties in the High Plains and move them into the Rolling Plains. We believe we'll make more progress and do it quicker if we do breeding work in the region.”

Cody Poag said independent All-Tex Seed in Levelland will expand operations to include a greenhouse. “We need that to be competitive in both conventional and transgenic markets,” he said.

“We're one of the last independent seed companies left in the region and we're pleased with what we've accomplished. Since 1994 we've put out 20 varieties and according to USDA numbers we have 7 percent of the market share for the region.

All-Tex cotton breeder Scott Brown said efforts include working with transgenic field trials and developing lines with competitive fiber characteristics.

“We are working on a stripper-picker cross that looks very good,” he said. “This is the first year in equivalency trials and fiber quality compares (with some of the industry standards). We've also just started work on nematode resistance.”

“We are in the early stages of the cotton seed business,” said Charlie Cook, Syngenta. “In 2005 we hope to have Syngenta germplasm and by 2007 we hope to have herbicide technology on the market.”

Crop protection

Cook said the company's strength in crop protection will compliment the cotton breeding program. “We have the premier seed coating technology in the industry with Cruiser. We also have a strong line of crop protection materials.”

He said the combination of germplasm, seed coating technology and crop protection will be an advantage.

“We'll work with stripper and picker cotton varieties and hope to have something on the market soon. One variety, D2429 is currently in several high quality trials.”

Tom Kilgore, Beltwide Cotton Genetics, says the 2003 Breeders' Tour reminded folks of the need for breeders to meet the fiber quality demands of the international market.

“I've been working toward that end for the last three years,” Kilgore said.

“Everything we're doing now at Beltwide Cotton Genetics is with new material that meets world quality demands. I've gotten rid of older, lower quality materials.”

Kilgore said his goal is to “do all I can to help the economic viability of this industry. I want the next generation to grow cotton in the United States. If they don't, manmade fibers will replace cotton.”

Kilgore said breeders can go only so far to assure fiber quality. “Growers also have to take some responsibility and take care of the cultural practices that will improve quality,” he said.

Kilgore said a combination of high quality fiber and storm proof characteristics will be crucial for High Plains growers. “I'm confident we can deliver varieties with both of those traits,” he said.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com