In some ways, cotton farmers are burdened by an embarrassment of riches.

No, it’s not the current price that could cause them to wonder why they are so fortunate. And it’s not the huge yields they’ve made (or not) the past three years.

But they do have a plethora of varieties from which they can select the best option for specific fields.

“We are covered up with new varieties,” says Randy Boman, research director and cotton Extension program leader at Oklahoma State University’s  Southwest Research and Extension Center at Altus. “And we have good ones, with high production potential and high quality. The dilemma is which one to pick for a particular farm.”

Boman, speaking at the recent Red river Crops Conference at Altus, says more new selections will be available this year, or within the next two years, and will offer options such as multiple herbicide tolerance and improved insect resistance.

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“More stacked trait varieties will be coming,” he says. These varieties will include tolerance to both glyphosate and glufosinate, as well as 2, 4-D or dicamba, in addition to offering better options for controlling various worm species. New generations of Bollgard, Widestrike and TwinLink are also on the horizon.

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The transition from conventional varieties to genetically modified cotton in Oklahoma is now complete, Boman says. “We’ve seen a significant change since 1995, the year before the first Bollgard Bt varieties were released. That year, we planted 100 percent conventional cotton varieties. Today, we plant zero conventional cotton — we are 100 percent transgenic.”

That breaks out to 95 percent Bt cotton varieties and 3 percent Widestrike. About 2 percent of cotton currently planted is Roundup Flex or GlyTol only. Producers are planting 98 percent stacked varieties —including both herbicide tolerant and insect resistant.

Unless regulatory issues arise, X-TendFlex technology that will include tolerance to glyphosate, glufosinate and dicamba will be available in 2015, he says. “In 2016, we expect to see our first Enlist cotton, which will be tolerant to 2,4-D, glyphosate and glufosinate. 

“Agronomic performance issues are critical” Boman says. “A transgenic trait doesn’t necessarily guarantee a profit.”

Producers should focus on production potential and also quality, he says. The benchmark has changed over the past decade or so. “The minimum standard now is 35 staple, 28 grams per Tex, 3.8 to 4.6 micronaire, 82 to 83 length uniformity, 31 color and 3 leaf. We can typically meet or exceed these fiber property goals with the genetics we now plant. However, in our area, we struggle with length uniformity, and sometimes bark contamination.”

Currently available varieties are providing excellent yield and quality, he says. ‘Some of the quality figures farmers are making now would have been unbelievable just a few years ago.”

Still, Boman says, variety selection remains one of the most important decisions a farmer makes every year, and making the best choice for specific conditions will be key to maintaining yield and quality goals.

Look at trial results

Studying variety test results at least provides a means of narrowing the field, he says. “Variety testing was a major priority for cotton producers in a recent Cotton Incorporated survey of top concerns.” The top five items in that survey included input costs, herbicide-resistant weeds, variety selection, drought and heat tolerance and early weed control.

The middle three — and arguably all five — have at least some link to variety testing. Boman notes that Cotton Incorporated has also developed an enhanced variety testing program, in which they submit results to the Seed Matrix database to help producers select the best options.

“Our goal is to have a complete variety package to reduce production risks,” he says. “Three factors should be part of variety selection criteria — agronomy, pathology and entomology. Agronomic traits should mean good production potential across a large geography. Pathology considerations should include disease and nematode resistance. And entomology includes insect resistant traits— Bollgard II, Widestrike, TwinLink. All these should be part of the variety selection process.” Storm resistance is also a big deal in the Southwest.

OSU has two variety testing programs, Boman says: the Official Variety Tests, which consist of small plots of seed company varieties that are managed “by OSU personnel on our experiment station farms.”

The Extension Replicated Agronomic Cotton Evaluation (RACE) trials include large plots with cooperating growers, who manage the trials using their typical management parameters.

“We can’t say enough about our cooperators,” Boman says. “They typically lose productivity on variety plots, a sacrifice they make for the industry. It takes extra time and care to manage a RACE trial — my hat’s off to them.”

Some trials in the last few years have been limited, or in some cases wiped out, by devastating drought. “But we’ve still seen some entries that made well over 4 bales per acre,” Boman says. “We’ve also seen some upland cotton staple rated near 40. That’s incredible!”

That kind of quality, he says, “is one reason we’re selling so much cotton overseas.”

Variety trials also give growers a good idea of profit potential for a given variety, he says. “The difference in net value per acre between the variety at the bottom of our trials and the one at the top is typically more than $100.” Several varieties near the top of each trial may not be significantly different. “And we have some that perform well across a large geography.”

Disease resistance has become an increasingly important concern, Boman says. “We do have some Verticillium wilt in our state, but not a lot of Fusarium wilt and bacterial blight. We don’t have a fungicide we can spray over-the-top for wilt control.”  Genetics is the only, and best, answer.

“If you know you have a disease issue in a particular field, look at variety trials performed under the respective disease pressure to see what might perform well. These results are generated by the Texas A&M AgriLife plant pathologists at Lubbock.”

The key for variety selection, Boman says, lies in knowing field conditions, history, and management capabilities, and then studying variety trials to determine the best match for a particular field. “Farmers may have a lot of varieties to consider, but they also have many very good options, and many are arguably the best varieties we’ve ever been able to plant.” 

 

More on cotton and other Southwest crops:

 

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