Daniel Lyons, a Memphis, Tenn., cotton buyer, counts only one domestic mill among his customer base and says the foreign demand for higher quality cotton is changing the way farmers and seed companies view the future.

“The equation has changed,” Lyons said during a variety field day at the Emergent Genetics (Stoneville) Southwest research station in Idalou, Texas.

“Foreign buyers want high yarn counts,” he said. “I sell mostly to Japan and Mexico and for niche fabric markets. Those markets need longer and stronger cotton.”

Lyons said the old standard cotton (41-4-34) “does not work any longer. That has been the base market for years, especially in the Delta. But with only a 6.1 million-bale domestic market last year, we have to find cotton with a higher grade, better staple.”

He said the standard now, at least for foreign mills, is 31-3-35. “It may go even a bit longer, 36. And markets want a 27 grams per Tex strength rating. They want strong yarn that will not break.”

Lyons said quality began emerging as a more important factor about 10 years ago. “We realized that we needed to develop better cottonseed,” he said, “and seed companies are doing that.”

Lyons and growers at the field day expressed particular interest in Stoneville’s new line of cottonseed, NexGen, “the next generation of cotton,” varieties expected to compete with FiberMax in both yield and quality.

Farmers and consultants on hand at Stoneville’s field day said for years they had two choices: pounds or quality. “Why not both?” asked Bobby Byrd, a Hale County farmer. “We can do that,” he said. “The cotton industry, until about ten years ago, overlooked quality, especially in West Texas. But seed companies have found a way to convince West Texas farmers to pay more for seed.”

He said 20 years ago no one in his area would have even considered paying $150 for a bag of cottonseed. Now, it’s a good investment, he said.

Mark Hegi, who farms near Petersburg, Texas, agrees. “Seed companies have done a better job of providing varieties with better quality characteristics,” he said. And farmers count on that quality every year, “not just once every five years.”

He said for years farmers in West Texas were “bad about saving seed and some complained about high seed prices, but paying more for cottonseed allowed companies to develop better varieties and those varieties have put money back into our pockets.

“We used to have two or three varieties we planted every year in the Southern Plains. But now we’re trying to spread risks by variety selection.”

He said planting several varieties with different maturity levels allows him to schedule harvest more efficiently.

“I don’t want it all ready at the same time,” he said.

Hegi said along with choosing better varieties farmers also have to take some responsibility for improving quality. “Often, I only need to look in the mirror to see who is to blame,” he said. “It’s often my mistake, not the variety, that lowered quality.”

He said one of the most important improvements he’s seen in the past few years has been improved micronaire. “A few years back it was rare not to have some cotton with low mike,” he said. “And that meant a deduction of seven to nine cents a pound. That hurts. But low mike is not as big a concern as it used to be.”

Justin McGee, a consultant in the new cotton area just east of Amarillo, said growers in this northern fringe of the Cotton Belt need short-season varieties because of the limited growing season.

“Unfortunately, we have no short-season strippers that produce great quality cotton,” he said. “And quality has to be a priority, especially in a year like this.”

He said high production costs, low prices and dependence on the foreign market because of low domestic use make quality cotton a prerequisite to profit.

He’s also working with first-time cotton growers and recommends they go slow in adopting varieties that require more intense management.

“For first-year cotton farmers, I recommend mostly short-season varieties,” he said. “Those come with the least risk. As they gain experience, I’ll add some mid-season pickers.”

For a more seasoned farmer, he’ll recommend 40 percent to 50 percent Bollgard cotton, early-season picker types in one or two fields and the rest in short-season stripper varieties.

McGee, Byrd and Hegi have looked at several varieties with high quality potential. McGee said the NexGen varieties, 1553R and 2448R have shown promise in his area. He’s also been pleased with FiberMax 960.

Hegi said Stoneville’s NG 2448R and 3969R show promise. He also likes FiberMax 989 and 960. He tried Deltapine 555 and 444. “The problem with 555 is that it needs every day of the season to make a crop,” he said. “We can count on it about two of every five years in this area. The 444 is a shorter maturity and seems to be a better fit.”

Byrd is participating in the certified FiberMax program. “I’m interested to see how that goes,” he said. The extra 3 cents a pound he expects from the program may be the difference “in making money and losing it,” he said.

He’s also interested to see how the NexGen varieties perform and likes the competition among seed companies that should produce better varieties for growers.

Steve Calhoun, manager of the Emergent Genetics Southwest research station, said the NexGen varieties have been developed specifically for Southwest conditions. “We’re combining high yield, high quality and storm proof characteristics into these varieties,” he said. “That has been our commitment to the High Plains cotton region,” Calhoun said. “We want the storm proof qualities of stripper cotton and the fiber and yield characteristics of picker types.”

He said NG 1553R, 2448R and 3669R would be available for planting in 2005.

“Seed companies have taken a lot of heat over quality characteristics,” said Kenny Melton, Emergent Genetics technical services director. “We feel good about the quality cotton in the pipeline,” Melton said. “But that did not happen over night. We’ve been working on it for years and we’re just now seeing the fruition of those efforts.”

Don Threet, Emergent Genetics vice president for U.S. business said Southwest growers have expressed a desire for better qualities, especially those with the Roundup Ready gene. “They also want high yield potential and high quality fiber,” he said.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com