Selecting productive cotton varieties is not an easy task, particularly on the Texas High Plains, where weather can literally “make or break” a crop. A Texas Cooperative Extension cotton agronomist advises producers to do their homework before they select varieties for 2005.

Homework means comparing several characteristics among many 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 varieties based on positive traits,” said Randy Boman, Extension cotton agronomist based at Lubbock.

“It is important to select and plant varieties that fit your farm: Varieties with the genetic potential to achieve good lint quality and yield.

“The 2004 crop year in the Texas High Plains was challenging, yet we were graced with a major record-breaking crop. With the above average rainfall, many producers achieved record yields on their farms, while many others had a tough year. Although we did not have many acres lost early in the growing season, a considerable amount of dryland emerged very late after being dry planted and catching some late June rainfall.”

Many dryland producers did see record yields and quality. Hail in August, September and October damaged a substantial amount of acres. 2004 was the second wettest year on record at Lubbock. It was also a year of below-normal heat unit accumulation, especially for August and September, and unfavorable harvest conditions prevailed after record high rainfall in November, Boman said.

“This weather negatively impacted many of the longer-season, open-boll type cottons that have gained popularity in recent years. Although many looser varieties still managed to weather the storm, some did experience considerable pre-harvest loss due to weather,” he said. “We were one major sleet event away from disaster in some fields.”

A considerable amount of cotton was harvested in December and January, making it one of the latest harvests in recent years. Due to field weathering of the cotton, color grades dipped considerably, and bark percentage was the highest in several years. The 2004 crop is expected to total about 4.6 million bales.

“The crop had around 60 percent color grades 31 and 41, while leaf grades slipped to an average of about 3.6. Bark percentage averaged around 50 percent,” Boman said. “The average staple length still came in at around 34.25. However, about 70 percent of the crop had a 34 or longer staple length, which was the highest since 1996. The average strength came in at about 28.5 grams per tex.

“Unfortunately, 2004 was a low-micronaire year. Our micronaire averaged about 3.6, which was the lowest average micronaire since 1992. This was mainly due to the cooler growing season, which resulted in immature cotton across the region. About 23 percent of the crop classed at USDA's Lubbock Classing Office had micronaire of 3.2 or lower.” Fortunately, 2005 looks promising due to outstanding winter precipitation. In addition, new varieties and technologies are on the way and can help producers boost profitability. “Look for new varieties from several seed companies in 2005. Bollgard II, for example, will be available in several new varieties,” Boman said. “Some seed availability issues for certain varieties will likely be encountered, due to seed quality concerns arising from the 2004 weather. “Monsanto is planning several large variety demonstrations with the new Roundup Ready Flex technology. This technology should allow producers to spray nearly full season over-the-top, and with higher glyphosate rates than with the current generation of Roundup Ready technology.

“Additionally, Dow AgroSciences' WideStrike Bt technology will become available for the first time in open-boll varieties.”

Even so, growers should not plant fence-row to fence-row with just one type of cotton. Extension agents can advise growers on variety performance in local field trials. The Plains Cotton Improvement Program's replicated large-plot systems variety trials, sponsored by Plains Cotton Growers and Cotton Inc., also contain good baseline information that 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 are another good source of comparison information,” Boman said.

“Gannaway's performance trials provide the only unbiased information on large numbers of varieties sold on the High Plains, particularly new ones.”

After 2004, storm resistance is more of a concern for some growers. Gannaway included storm resistance ratings in many of his 2004 variety trials. “It is best to consider multi-year and multi-site performance averages when they are available. At the same time, many new varieties appearing on the scene have not undergone multi-year university testing,” Boman said. Growers can obtain a copy of Gannaway's 2004 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 Extension agent or from The Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Lubbock.

The Lubbock center phone number is (806) 746-6101. These and other crop production publications/guides are available on the Lubbock center Web site at http://lubbock.tamu.edu. Yield potential remains the single most important agronomic trait in producers' minds, but they should also consider lint quality. “We sell pounds of lint, but the value of each pound is a function of fiber quality. These two characteristics are closely linked to profitability, but we also want to consider adaptability,” Boman said.

“Many long-season cottons may be better adapted to areas with longer growing seasons. Some of these varieties have produced record yields and quality on the High Plains, due to extremely warm September weather in recent years.” Growers who have made record yields with those varieties typically had above-normal heat accumulation during the growing season.

They also terminate irrigation and apply harvest aids such as defoliants/desiccants in a timely fashion, and they get their crop out of the field early, Boman said.

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

“On the other hand, storm-proof stripper varieties are more suited to our harvesting conditions and are more likely to survive damaging weather at harvest without considerable lint loss,” Boman said.

“Check the storm resistance of any variety on your potential planting list. “If you do choose an open-boll picker variety, plan and budget for a good harvest aid program that will let you achieve 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 Roundup Ready, Liberty Link, Bollgard, Bollgard II and others only if they are a bargain compared to traditional weed or insect control costs for a specific field, he observed.

“The value of Bollgard and Bollgard II technology is looking better on the High Plains because Monsanto has restructured technology fees for Roundup Ready only varieties,” Boman said. “Pink bollworms may be a significant problem in some areas in 2005, and this technology works exceptionally well on that pest.

“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 backgrounds.”

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/qualities, growers should strive for diversity when selecting varieties, he said. “Don't plant the entire farm to only one variety. Matching varieties and transgenic technologies to specific fields will help spread production risks,” Boman said. “It is simply good management.”