Editor's note: The United States may no longer be able to produce cotton cheaper than anyone else. Countries without the benefit of OSHA, EPA, and APHIS, for instance, capitalize on cheap labor, new ground and chemistry banned to U.S. growers.

But competing in international markets has become increasingly important for U.S. cotton farmers as domestic mill use has declined. Longer, stronger and cleaner fiber has become the mantra for manufacturers. And developing new cotton varieties that fit those criteria has become the goal of cottonseed companies. Following is the third in a series of articles looking at cotton seed company breeding programs and some insight on what the future holds for Southwest cotton growers.

FiberMax, a relative newcomer to the U.S. cottonseed market and part of the Bayer Crop Science Company, concentrates on improving fiber quality in varieties that produce high yields and also contain the technology Southwest growers demand.

“Our focus in West Texas is providing picker varieties that are adapted to this region and bring additional value to the West Texas cotton producer, as well as a strong focus and commitment to our stripper breeding,” said Lee Rivenbark, director of Commercial Operations for FiberMax.

“We want to maintain yield potential as well as provide the Roundup Ready, LibertyLink, Bollgard and stacked gene technology growers want.

“Our focus in West Texas is a stripper breeding program. We'll get Liberty and Roundup Ready technology in new stripper cotton varieties in the next two to four years,” he said.

“We've already come a long way in the Southwest. And we believe producers have been beneficiaries. In South Texas, strength, length and other favorable fiber qualities in FiberMax varieties have helped improve profit potential for farmers.”

In 2004 and 2005, he said, new Bollgard II and LibertyLink varieties will be available in both picker and stripper cotton. “We're looking at a number of new varieties this year to serve as a platform to set the stage for 2004.

“FM958B offers Bollgard technology in a variety with excellent quality characteristics. FM 960BR, a selection out of a FM958 and FM966 background, is very adaptable in the West Texas stripper cotton region. It is agronomically similar and should offer storm proof traits similar to these varieties. FM960BR will fit well in West Texas.”

He said interest in the variety will grow “extremely fast in West Texas. We're getting transgenic characteristics into this variety without giving up fiber quality and yield potential.”

He says FM960BR is available in limited quantities this year, but a “large volume will be available in 2004.”

FM 991BR and FM 991RR are relatively new to South Texas growers and offer high yield potential and excellent fiber quality traits.

An okra-leaf variety, FM819RR is an early-maturing variety with excellent fiber quality and good water use efficiency.

He says an early to mid-maturity stripper variety, FM 5024BXN, shows good fiber quality, excellent storm resistance and tolerance to over-the-top application of Buctril herbicide.

The 832 LibertyLink and 966 LibertyLink will “have a limited launch in 2004. We'll have a full menu of new varieties, including picker and stripper types and LibertyLink, Roundup Ready and stacked, next year.”

The LibertyLink Cotton System “will complement Roundup Ready technology. It's another herbicide tool and fits into a resistance management program. The LibertyLink System extends application timing through 20 percent bloom as an over-the-top spray.

“Crop tolerance is excellent.”

Rivenbark said LibertyLink technology allows farmers to apply herbicide based on weed size instead of crop growth stage.

Rivenbark also expects the FiberMax cotton breeding program to yield nematode-tolerant varieties “down the road. And we'll provide improved disease resistant packages. We don't have a specific variety or time frame, but it's part of our breeding program.”

FiberMax is a relatively new player in the U.S. cottonseed market. “We signed our first agreement with Cotton Seed International in 1997,” he said. “We began commercial operation in the United States in 1998 and through 2000 only provided conventional varieties, no transgenic traits.”

Those began in 2001, with an agreement with Monsanto.

“Growth has been good, so far,” Rivenbark said. “We had 10.5 percent of the market share in 2002. And we're not concentrating on one region. We're strong in the Southwest and the Southeast and we're growing in the Mid-South.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com