As cotton markets become more competitive, prices more volatile and production costs more painful, farmers will look for production techniques that put more lint in the hopper and more cash in the kitty. And they'll try to do that as efficiently as possible.

The 21st century cotton growth manual may be considerably different than “your father's” (or grandfather's) production guide, including such space-age technology as global positioning systems, variable rate application, sub-surface drip irrigation and transgenic seed.

Cottonseed, in fact, may be the ringer in the game that allows farmers to produce cotton more efficiently. Already, genetic manipulation has produced varieties resistant to non-selective herbicides and toxic to some pest insects. And there's more to come.

Below is the first in a series of articles, developed from interviews with cotton seed company representatives, detailing some of the changes growers can expect in the next few years, changes hat will improve yield potential, fiber quality and production efficiency.

Beltwide Cotton Genetics, a new company out of Collierville, Tenn., recently released several cotton varieties primarily for the Texas market. The goal, company officials say, is to provide farmers with varieties that help them put more money in their pockets.

“We'll always need to improve cotton varieties,” says Tom Kilgore, who does breeding work for Beltwide Genetics in Harlingen, Texas. “Improvements in yield and fiber quality characteristics are good for the industry and good for farmers.

“We're developing varieties that address farmers' need to compete in a global market. We want to provide more choices.”

Rick Rice, marketing director for Beltwide Genetics, says farmers in the Texas High Plains are struggling. “Many are just trying to survive,” he says. “They need varieties that allow them to make more money per acre.”

The key, he says, is picker varieties, as a replacement for some of the stripper varieties High Plains farmers have grown for decades.

“Our numbers show that picker varieties produce higher fiber quality characteristics, more value per pound and also make more cotton per acre. That's what we need, more money at the farmer level and we believe our varieties address that issue.”

Kilgore says a similar situation exists in South Texas where farmers need to improve yield and fiber quality “to improve the economic viability of cotton. We're working to help them achieve that.”

He says high micronaire poses a serious problem for South Texas producers.

“We will address the need in South Texas for improved fiber quality in our breeding work,” Rice says, “and we'll work to get more picker varieties in the High Plains.”

Rice says one of Beltwide's first releases, BCG28R, has produced well in field trials. “It made 4.4 bales per acre in a Gaines County, Texas, field,” he says. “I don't think a stripper variety would have enough horsepower to produce that much.”

He says picker variety genetics have improved over time and, with irrigation and an early harvest date, they offer farmers an opportunity to improve per acre profits. “They have to manage it. It's a high input proposition.”

A big advantage, he says, is improved fiber quality. “Farmers may not always receive a premium for better quality cotton,” he admits, “but they can eliminate discounts. At one time, growers expected to get extra money for cotton that graded 25 or 26 grams per tex.

“They don't any more. That's pretty standard with today's varieties. The bar has been raised.”

He says similar changes have occurred with staple and Micronaire. “Short staple is not worth as much as long and weak fiber is not as valuable as strong. Long, strong, clean and the right mic brings more money that short, weak, leafy and with the wrong mic,” he says.

“That's especially true in a loan-oriented market,” Kilgore says.

Picker varieties will require little production change. “Farmers will still use strippers,” Kilgore says.

“But they might want to tweak cultural practices to take advantage of the picker varieties' capabilities. They want to do everything possible to take advantage of the yield potential. That includes fertility, Pix application and pest management.”

Managing for early harvest also plays a role, he says.

Rice says he would not recommend one of the new varieties to High Plains dryland farmers who can wrangle only about 300 pounds of lint per acre out of their soil.

“But with potential to irrigate and ability to manage the crop closely, these new varieties show that some of the older selections were limited.”

Kilgore says Beltwide varieties have performed well, even without irrigation, in the Texas Coastal Plains, even without irrigation.” Rainfall is more plentiful in South Texas than in the High Plains.

Kilgore says picker variety use in Texas has been hampered by weather. “Harvest timing is crucial,” he says. “That's why growers have to manage for earliness and get the crop in before it's vulnerable to storms.”

Texas will be the main marketing target for the new varieties.

“Oklahoma remains an unknown because we don't have sufficient experience to know how these varieties will perform,” Rice says. “We felt comfortable with a Texas market because we had done breeding work on the High Plains and knew how the varieties perform.”

They will not market these varieties in the Mid-South either.

“For now, we're concentrating sales efforts in Texas. First, we'll get our people in place so we can service what we sell. We don't want to spread ourselves too thin as a new company.”

Kilgore says varieties planed for the future will include the Bt gene. “We have an agreement with Monsanto for Bollgard and Bollgard II for use with the Roundup Ready Flex gene.”

Varieties available for 2003 include: BCG 24R, BCG 28R, BCG 30R, BCG 245 and BCG 295.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com