Yield remains the top priority for cottonseed companies, but improving fiber quality is gaining in importance.

“We're not where we need to be with fiber quality,” says Steve Calhoun, Stoneville. “But we have a company-wide commitment to improve quality, and our new crosses will emphasize that. Higher lint yield is no longer the sole selection criteria.”

Calhoun was one of six panelists participating in a cotton variety discussion recently at a Texas Gulf Coast Cotton Conference in Corpus Christi.

Calhoun said Stoneville's new variety, ST 580, released in 2000, indicates the company's new direction.

“We've improved fiber quality but without giving up yield advantages,” he said.

Emphasizing quality has not always paid dividends for seed companies, or for farmers.

“It hasn't mattered to producers,” Calhoun said. “The market did not reward fiber quality; yield has been more important to returns. Our best strategy has been to breed for higher-yielding varieties with base or better fiber quality.”

Calhoun said the demand for transgenic varieties the past few years “left little room to improve fiber quality. We made relatively minor improvements.”

Although the market has not rewarded farmers for improved fiber quality, Calhoun insists it's still important. “Premiums are not much incentive to produce higher quality, but discounts do matter.”

Jane Devers, Aventis, says cotton breeding “is a long-term objective. Only one out of thousands of lines may be released as a new variety.”

She says the Aventis focus is on insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, high yield and improved fiber quality. “We draw on one of the largest germplasm pools in the world in our breeding program,” she said.

She said three FiberMax varieties, FM 989RR, FM 991 RR and FM 989BR were released last year. “We hope to have a Liberty cotton system ready soon and could have a variety available in limited quantities in 2003.”

She said the system would offer full crop compatibility with a wide application window for Liberty herbicide.

Dave Albers, with Deltapine, said breeding goals include yield, quality, genetic diversity, disease resistance, adaptation, transgenic traits, reduced micronaire, and improved staple length and strength.

“New genetics represent a big commitment for Deltapine,” Albers said. “Delta Pearl, a mid- to full-season variety on the market for two years, features improved micronaire, length and strength.

“DPL 491 is a mid- to full-season variety with a semi-smooth leaf with good yield and quality. We hope to have Bollgard II out soon as well as an enhanced Roundup Ready variety.”

He said Deltapine experimental lines emphasize a “good combination of yield and quality. We have a lot of hope for varieties currently in the pipeline.”

Bobby Haygood, with Phytogen, said the company is working on high-yielding Acala and Pima varieties for California as well as improvements for growers in the East.

“Our PSC 355 produces high fiber quality, is broadly adaptable with a high yield potential. It performs well in most soils.”

He said new germplasm shows a lot of promise for blight and rootknot nematode resistance.

Cotton Incorporated initiated a breeding program “as a response to serious stagnation of yield and quality,” said Roy Cantrell.

“We surveyed public and private breeding programs to determine needs,” Cantrell said.

One thing the Cotton Incorporated survey unearthed was a shortage of “qualified young cotton breeders. We started a Cotton Incorporated Fellowship program to get good students into cotton breeding,” Cantrell said.

Cotton Incorporated breeding initiatives also include germplasm expansion for which “funds are currently inadequate.”

Wayne Smith, a Texas A&M Cotton Breeder, said the university is “looking at all aspects of our cotton research, in conjunction with Texas Tech and the International Textile Center. We're identifying the areas we need to shore up and the areas where we are doing what needs to be done,” Smith said.

He said a number of disciplines are involved to “provide variability and enhance the genetic base.

“We hope to provide a foundation for improved cotton varieties for this and other generations.”

Smith said research would focus on immediate needs as well as those “20 or 30 years down the road.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com