An old country saying goes: “If you ain't getting better, you're backing up.”

The cotton industry may not be in reverse, but progress creeps along at a horse and buggy pace.

“Cotton yields have been stuck in the mud in the United States since 1990,” said Tulia, Texas, farmer Dale Swinburn during the annual Plains Cotton Growers Inc., annual meeting recently in Lubbock.

Swinburn, reporting on the PCG Cotton Improvement Program, said U.S. cotton farmers have to improve production to compete in a world market. “Dryland yields have not improved in 20 years,” he said.

He compared the U.S. average yield, 615 pounds per acre, with China, 900 pounds per acre, and Australia at 1,000 pounds, and noted that with as much as half the U.S. crop tabbed for export, improving efficiency is vital.

He said the 10 cents per bale PCG members contribute to the program help fund research projects designed to improve both yield and quality.

“Terry Wheeler, for instance, is screening lines for bacterial blight resistance. Randy Boman makes variety evaluations, looking at economics, agronomics and other factors to determine which varieties a farmer should use.”

He said cotton breeder John Gannaway maintains nurseries to screen cotton lines for quality, including strength. “He excludes anything that is less than 1.30 inches and 35 grams per tex. Quality is extremely important with high speed spinning. We've made progress with staple since 1980, but we still have high mike.”

He said Gannaway also screens lines in high lint per seed and drought tolerance nurseries. “We contend with a depleted aquifer in this area,” Swinburn said, “so we need drought tolerant varieties. It's difficult to determine drought tolerance and the only way to identify the characteristics is through yield.”

And factors other than water often affect yield, he said.

“But we know that cotton responds to its environment and water is the key.”

Swinburn said screening germplasm might identify cotton that will produce acceptable yields under dry conditions. “Researchers are evaluating wild cotton. Perhaps some genes in wild strains will help improve water use efficiency.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com