“The times,” as Bob Dylan was want to say, “ they are a'changin.” Take cotton variety selection, for instance.

Pressure from domestic textile mills for cleaner, stronger and longer fiber has convinced some farmers in areas where they typically grow stripper variety to try some picker types to take advantage of quality and yield factors.

Cottonseed companies have responded to the demand and are marketing picker types into the High Plains. They're also looking for improved quality traits on picker and stripper cottons to satisfy increasingly rigid demands from both domestic and international markets.

The following is the second in a series of articles depicting how seed companies are responding to the challenge.

Listening and responding to the market provides focus for Delta and Pine Land Company, says Tom Speed, regional technical service manager, and Matt Vaughn, regional sales manager.

“We've sold picker varieties into the South Plains of Texas for several years,” Vaughn says, “especially in Gaines and Yoakum counties. “Growers understand fiber quality, and they still have good irrigation capacity and a longer growing season than do farmers farther north.”

Vaughn says Delta and Pine Land addresses market demands. “That means better quality, longer and stronger fiber,” he says. “We're ready to address those needs.”

Speed and Vaughn say Deltapine stripper varieties provide quality factors. And they agree that the capricious weather that characterizes the High Plains dictates that some of the cotton planted should be storm-proof.

“There are good reasons why farmers plant storm-proof crops here,” Vaughn says.

“But for the last nine years, some time during the growing season, conditions turned hot and dry,” Speed says. “Typical stripper type cotton cut out during these stress periods. It had made all it could.”

“Picker varieties, he says, are more indeterminate and “will withstand those stress periods. They put on more bracts, more bolls and produce better yields.”

Vaughn says fiber length with picker types typically runs a few points higher than strippers. Pickers will produce 35 to 36 while stripper varieties range from 33 to 34.”

Both say Delta and Pine Land did not push picker varieties initially. “But we owe it to our customers to meet their needs. We make certain they understand the risks of planting picker-type cotton. And there are risks involved.”

An early freeze or fall storm, which can be devastating in the High Plains, could destroy loose-boll cotton.

“We're providing a diverse product line to meet changing needs,’ Vaughn says. “We have products from one end of the spectrum to the other — stripper, picker, Roundup Ready and both standard Bollgard and Bollgard II.

“Whatever Texas farmers need for picker and stripper varieties, we'll provide it.”

Vaughn says cotton breeders at the companies West Texas research centers, at Haskell and Hale Center are working on stripper varieties with picker-type fiber characteristics.

“We are emphasizing quality,” Speed says.

“We've heard from the marketplace,” Vaughn adds, “and to maintain our market share we have to provide more varieties with outstanding quality characteristics. And for the first time, we have stripper varieties with superior fiber.”

“We're looking at a new generation of stripper cotton,” Speed says. “We have experimental varieties we've been studying for five or six years, but it take a long time to bring a new one to market.”

Vaughn says farmers and industry hear the demand from domestic and international buyers that they need better quality cotton. The question for years has been whether buyers would be willing to pay for quality.

“It may be a matter of avoiding discounts rather than receiving a premium,” Vaughn says. “Most farmers still produce for maximum yield and then get whatever price they can. But, they still must produce quality that keeps them out of discounts.

“Most growers are not willing to sacrifice yield for quality.”

They say farmers also have had trouble justifying the extra expense of transgenic cotton that included both the Roundup Ready and the Bollgard gene. Many say they can use pesticides cheaper than they can buy stacked gene cotton.

“But they can't know how much damage they get before they spray,” Vaughn says. “If they add just one more boll per plant because they selected a Bt cotton variety, they more than pay for the technology fee.”

Speed says variety trials show that stacked gee cotton out yields traditional in fields with worm pressure.”

“Bollgard II will be a wonderful new tool because it controls more worms, basically all the caterpillars.”

High Plains farmers may still question the investment, Speed says. “The area is not as conducive to growing worms, so it's a tough choice for farmers. But the varieties perform very well.”

“Ultimately, the market will tell us if it fits in the High Plains,” Vaughn says. “Currently, 98 percent of the seed we sell is Roundup Ready.”

Speed says picker varieties seem to do well in the Central High Plains and south, from Gaines County up to Lubbock. “We're still tip-toeing along with a few more growers trying picker varieties. We recommend caution.”

They say growers north of Lubbock should be even more careful.

“Sometimes farmers find a way to make it work,” Speed says. “But as we go further north, we run into cold-tolerance issues because of the shorter growing season.”

“We have good products available now and we have even more promising ones in the pipeline,” Vaughn says.

“We intend to support the market with high quality cotton seed,’ Speed says.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com