LUBBOCK, Texas - Selecting productive cotton varieties is not an easy task -especially on the Texas High Plains, an area where weather can literally "make or break" a crop. A Texas Cooperative Extension cotton agronomist advises producers to do their homework by comparing several characteristics among many different varieties, and then keying these characteristics to typical growing conditions.

"We can't control our growing environment from year to year, but we can select the varieties we plant based on positive traits," said Randy Boman, Extension cotton agronomist. "It is very important to select and plant varieties that fit your farm - varieties with the genetic potential to achieve good lint quality and total yield.

"The 2003 crop year in the Texas High Plains was a challenging one. In spite of the weather, many producers achieved record yields on their farms. Many others had a tough year. June weather destroyed more than 1 million acres, mostly from the best irrigated land. Early dryland crop prospects declined due to record low rainfall in July and August," Boman said.

"Additional hail in September and October damaged a substantial amount of acres. 2003 was one of our driest years on record. It was also another year of above-normal heat unit accumulation and favorable harvest conditions on the High Plains. This weather favored many of the longer-season, open-boll type cottons that have gained popularity in recent years."

The 2003 crop totaled about 2.4 million bales. As a whole, the crop had excellent color and leaf grades, low bark percentage, and the highest average staple length since 1996. The average strength was also very high, he said. About 61 percent of the crop had a 34 or longer staple length, which was the highest seen since 1997.

"At the same time, 2003 was unfortunately another high-micronaire year. Our micronaire averaged 4.4, which tied for the highest micronaire value on record. Only the 2001 crop had equivalent micronaire value. About 18 percent of the 2003 crop had high micronaire, which was just below the 19 percent observed in 2001," Boman said. "High micronaire combined with short staple length can result in substantial discounts, based on the Commodity Credit Corporation loan chart.

"Fortunately, 2004 looks promising due to outstanding winter precipitation. Additional new varieties and technologies are on the way that can help producers boost their profitability. Look for new varieties from several seed companies in 2004. Bollgard II will be available in several new varieties, as well as several new Liberty Link herbicide-tolerant varieties."

Even so, growers should not plant fence-row to fence-row with one type of cotton, he added.

County Extension agents can advise growers on variety performance in local field trials. The Plains Cotton Improvement Program's (PCIP) replicated large-plot systems variety trials, sponsored by Plains Cotton Growers and Cotton Incorporated, also contain good baseline information than can help growers evaluate and compare potential field performance, Boman said.

"The variety trials conducted by John Gannaway, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station cotton breeder, at Lubbock and many other High Plains sites is another good source of comparison information. Gannaway's performance trials provide the only unbiased information on large numbers of varieties sold on the High Plains, particularly new ones such as Liberty Link and Bollgard II," Boman said. "It is best to consider multi-year and multi-site performance averages when they are available. At the same time, there are many new varieties appearing on the scene that have not undergone multi-year university testing."

Yield potential is probably the single most important agronomic trait in producers' minds, but they should also give significant consideration to lint quality.

"We sell pounds of lint, but the value of each pound is a function of fiber quality - so these two characteristics are closely linked to profitability. But we also want to consider adaptability," Boman said. "Many long-season picker cottons may be better adapted to areas with longer growing seasons, but some of these varieties have produced record yields and quality on the Plains, due to extremely warm September weather in recent years.

"Growers who made record yields with those varieties had above-normal heat accumulation. They also terminated irrigation and applied harvest aids (defoliants/desiccants) in a timely fashion, and they got their crop out of the field early."

Even when growers can catch a "run of good weather," they should not leave open-boll picker cottons in the field until a freeze conditions the plants for harvest. Unacceptable pre-harvest lint loss is likely to result, the agronomist said.

"On the other hand, storm-proof stripper varieties are more suited to our harvesting conditions and they are more likely to survive damaging weather at harvest without considerable lint loss," Boman said. "Check the storm-proofness of any variety on your potential planting list. If you do choose an open-boll picker variety, plan and budget ahead for a good harvest aid program that will let you achieve an early harvest.

"Don't be caught with lots of lint in the field, but no chance to harvest due to inclement weather."

The value of transgenic varieties is another consideration. Growers should consider varieties bred for herbicide tolerance, and-or insect resistance - such as Roundup Ready, BXN, Liberty Link, Bollgard, and Bollgard II - only if this technology is a bargain compared to typical traditional weed or insect control costs for a specific field, he said.

"The jury is still out on the value of Bollgard and Bollgard II in the High Plains, because our bollworm and budworm pressure is generally light. However, based on 2003 southern High Plains research, Bollgard II had 75 percent less bollworm damage when compared to Bollgard. Pink bollworms may be a significant problem in 2004 in some areas, and Bt technology works exceptionally well on that pest," Boman said. "At the same time, the inherent agronomic performance of some Bollgard plus Roundup Ready 'stacked gene' varieties may simply be better than some Roundup Ready cottons - even though both have the same genetic background."

Resistance to diseases such as verticillium or fusarium wilt, bacterial blight and root-knot nematodes is a valuable trait for most of the High Plains. Regardless of how they prioritize agronomic traits and qualities, growers should strive for diversity when selecting cotton varieties, the agronomist said.

"Don't plant the entire farm to only one variety," Boman said. "Matching varieties and transgenic technologies to specific fields will help you spread your production risk. It is simply good management."

Growers can obtain a copy of Gannaway's 2003 Cotton Performance Tests in the High Plains and Trans-Pecos Areas of Texas, and Extension's Systems Agronomic and Economic Evaluation of Transgenic and Conventional Cotton Varieties in the Texas High Plains, from their county Extension agent or from The Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Lubbock. These and other crop production publications, including a brief article on the new Liberty Link system, are also available on the Internet at:

http://lubbock.tamu.edu.

Tim W. McAlavy is a writer for Texas A&M University.

e-mail: t-mcalavy@tamu.edu