About this time each year, Southwest cotton specialists remind farmers that the most important decision they will make for the coming cotton crop is determining which varieties to plant.

It’s just as true this year as ever, says Texas AgriLife Extension Cotton Specialist Mark Kelley, located at the Lubbock Research and Extension Center.

Kelley discussed last summer’s variety trials at the South Plains Ag Conference and Trade Show at Brownfield. One of his most pertinent recommendations is for farmers to look at more than one year’s data when selecting a new variety. This may be especially important after the last two years, when even the best varieties often struggled to make a crop.

Gaylon Morgan, Texas AgriLife Extension state cotton specialist, speaking at the annual Blacklands Income Growth (BIG) conference at Waco, said in-season management depends on the variety selected. “Variety selection dictates management for the rest of the year,” he says.

Both would like to see more favorable weather for 2013.

Last year was somewhat better for High Plains cotton, Kelley says. “We received 10.7 inches of rainfall in 2012 — that’s 7 inches less than the long-term average.” But it was better than 2011. “June and July rainfall helped with irrigation efforts.”

If growers only look at variety trials from the last two years, they could miss out on some new varieties that hold promise.

“We recommend farmers evaluate trials over multiple years and over multiple locations,” Kelley says. “We also suggest evaluating various irrigation methods and capacities, as well as dryland production. Look at information across multiple levels of irrigation.”

“We want to see consistency,” Morgan says. “We don’t like to see a variety that tops the list in one location and hits bottom at another; we need less variability than that. Growers should get as much information as possible from trials at multiple locations and over multiple years.”

Kelley also recommends growers pay close attention to descriptions of the sites where varieties are grown. Field conditions vary, and looking for sites similar to where the variety will be planted could be a key to success.

Variety characteristics

Other characteristics to look for include:

  • Relative maturity. Longer season varieties (mid- to full-season) may be better suited to the south. Shorter maturity (early to early mid-maturity) may perform better to the north. Information on maturity ranges should be available from seed company data or from Jane Dever, Texas AgriLife Research cotton breeder at Lubbock.
  • Disease and nematode tolerance.  The loss of Temik insecticide makes root-knot nematode management more critical. Some varieties have tolerance to the pest. Verticillium and Bacterial blight are also concerns and should be considered when selecting varieties. “Know your enemy,” Kelley says.
  • Technology. Several packages of herbicide and insect tolerance traits are available. Herbicide traits include Roundup Ready Flex, Liberty Link, and GlyTol, with 2, 4-D and Dicamba resistance on the horizon. Identifying weed species and matching them to the best herbicides should be a priority. Insect resistance technology includes Bollgard II, WideStrike and TwinLink.
  • Storm Resistance is also an important concern for West Texas cotton producers.

Morgan emphasizes the importance of variety selection and gathering information before selecting what to plant. “It’s the most important decision cotton farmers make all year,” he says. “The difference between the best variety and the lowest-yielding variety in trials is often as much as 30 percent.”

That much yield variability justifies the time farmers invest in evaluating varieties.

Kelley says the goal for High Plains farmers should be to find a variety that will reduce production risks. That means yield stability under a variety of weather conditions and water regimes, as well as an ability to produce high fiber quality.

Morgan says growers should look for long staple, higher than 35 or 1.08; high strength, more than 28 grams per tex; premium micronaire, 3.8 to 4.6; and a smooth leaf.

“Growers also need to maintain a diverse herbicide program, including cultivation, to minimize the potential for weed resistance,” Kelley says.

Plant pathology is also a part of the puzzle. “Knowing the disease or nematode species present in a specific field is vitally important,” he says. “Root-knot nematode, Verticillium wilt, and Bacterial blight tolerance or immunity can make a difference.”

Insect resistance is also a key consideration. “Bollgard II and WideStrike are keys for lepidoptera pests,” Kelley says.

Most High Plains farmers have taken advantage of new technology. In the Lubbock area, 49 percent are using Bollgard II technology and 5 percent are using WideStrike. In the Lamesa area, Bollgard II adoption is higher, up to 71 percent, with 7 percent using WideStrike.

In the Lubbock area, 70 percent of growers use Roundup Ready Flex; that jumps to 85 percent in the Lamesa area.

Variety trial information is available at http://lubbock.tamu.edu and http://varietytesting.tamu.edu/cotton/.

Several products featuring new technology will be available this year, or within the next two or three years, specialists say. They include GlyTol/LL with TwinLink from Bayer CropScience. “With these technologies, Bayer Crop Science, FiberMax and Stoneville brands will be completely independent of Monsanto with insect and herbicide traits,” Morgan says.

Other technology traits and products in the pipeline include varieties from Phytogen’s Enlist Technology with WideStrike insect traits, Roundup Ready Flex, Liberty tolerance, and 2,4-D tolerance. The Enlist Cotton weed control system provides the Colex-D technology herbicide from Dow AgroSciences as a low volatility 2,4-D premix with glyphosate to be applied over the Enlist Cotton.

Monsanto is expected to have a Roundup Ready Xtend Crop System in cotton in 2015 and will include Roundup Ready Flex, Dicamba, and Liberty tolerance by 2015. These Monsanto traits are scheduled for release in soybeans in 2014, and will give growers some opportunity to view the technology before it arrives in cotton. Monsanto will soon be transitioning from Bollgard II to Bollgard III technology that will include VipCot and BII traits.

Kelley expects acreage to decline in the High Plains in 2013. “Some of that land will go to corn, but some farmers will convert irrigated cotton to dryland.” Grain prices compared to cotton will be a driving force, but irrigation capacity may play a role in keeping some acreage in cotton.

In 2012, High Plains cotton farmers abandoned 45 percent of their planted acreage — a huge increase from the 4.6 percent abandoned in 2010, but an improvement over 2011, when farmers failed to harvest 60 percent of the planted acreage.

Morgan asked BIG participants to estimate potential cotton acreage reduction for the Texas Blacklands, and they ranged from 30 percent to 40 percent.

Last year’s High Plains’ crop was not as good as farmers had hoped, with an estimated production total of 2.92 million bales, far off the area record of 5.6 million in 2005, but still significantly better than the 1.84 million bales from the 2011 crop.

Kelley says farmers can’t predict how the 2013 crop year will turn out. Fall and winter have been on the dry side, with recent rainfall offering some hope. But to make a decent cotton crop, farmers have to start out with the best tools available — and that means selecting the best variety for specific fields, conditions and yield goals.