A search for host-plant nematode resistance, improving fiber quality and fears of an inadequate supply of germplasm for future cotton geneticists stirred interest among participants in the 2003 Cotton Breeders' Tour that spent the better part of a week in and around Lubbock, Texas.

Jack Jones, who's accompanied this semi-annual tour for most of it's 20-year existence, has been working on host-plant resistance for nematodes for much of his career, which stretches back for more than 50 years.

Jones, of Louisiana State University, said genetic engineering will make the process much more efficient. “Progress will occur quicker,” he said.

“We're already making a quantum leap with cotton fiber quality,” he said. “But nematodes remain a threat over a large part of the Cotton Belt. I believe nematodes have been overlooked and now we're finding that they are widespread.”

Jones said nematodes may cause much more damage than some growers might expect. ‘I think control measures would improve yields significantly,” he said. “Host-plant resistance should play a key role in control strategies.”

Currently, Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University, and Texas A&M are working on host-plant resistance, Jones said. “But it's a difficult process. Screening is difficult. We're trying to identify genetic markers.”

Jones says some plant resistance to root knot nematodes already exists in varieties with good yield potential and good fiber quality. But he says growers need more. And they need resistance to other species, particularly the reniform nematode.

“We have some lines showing some tolerance in the presence of reniform,” Jones said. “The pests are not as damaging as they are to other lines but we don't see population decreases. One of my lines, a JJO line, looks promising.”

Jones began working in cotton breeding in 1948 and moved to LSU in 1950. He's developed seven or eight commercial varieties in his career including Gumbo, Pronto, Gumbo 500, 887, H1215, H1220, H1244 and H1560. Some of those have genetic engineered versions available.

“Genetic engineering,” he said, “is the most significant change in cotton breeding in 50 years.”

Ted Wallace, Mississippi State University, expressed some concern about a potential shortage of cotton germplasm.

“In the past, the industry had a free exchange of germplasm but that's changing. Now, it's more the exception than the rule to exchange with private companies. In the past, all we needed was our word that we would not abuse the privilege of using a company's material. It's not that way any longer and it's a tragedy.”

The onset of genetic engineering, accompanied by the huge investments necessary to develop new products, resulted in companies patenting materials to protect intellectual property rights.

Firms drop out

Wallace said not many private seed companies participate in public variety trials. “We used to include private varieties in our trials with no strings attached and could see how public varieties stacked up with them. We also could use anything in our trials for a vehicle for breeding. It was an excellent way to share germplasm. We have one private company left in our trials and that one likely will not continue.”

Wallace says the adoption of a “corporate mentality has been unfortunate. With an exchange, everyone benefited.”

Wallace said the breeders' tour is all about sharing ideas. “It's the most important event we have. We get an opportunity in a relaxed setting to visit with nearly everybody. We look at a lot of cotton but we also get a chance to catch up and see what our counterparts in other states are doing. This is one event where private and public breeders get together and share ideas.”

Wallace, who grew up in the Texas High Plains, said folks who move away, “tend to forget how difficult a challenge farmers in this region face each year. Seeing some of the dryland plots makes us appreciate what we have in Mississippi.”

Wallace said Mississippi and other Mid-South farmers rarely fear losing a cotton crop to hail. “We can get rained out or we can go through a drought period, but here farmers know it's going to be dry and that they'll have trouble with wind and blowing sand. We don't have that in Mississippi.”

Arizona breeder

Richard Percy, A USDA cotton breeder from Maricopa, Arizona, said the tour shows breeders from different regions “the nuts and bolts of how people run breeding programs. We exchange a lot of ideas about techniques and equipment.”

“We don't see a lot of these varieties in California,” said Harold Moser, CPCSD, Shafter, Calif. “And we don't see Pimas and Acalas in many of these trials, but it's interesting to see what's going on in other regions and we need to keep up to date with breeding efforts across the belt.”

Moser said finding ways to adapt planting and harvesting equipment also helps breeding programs.

“I get to see breeding lines that might work in my region,” said Bobby Phipps, University of Missouri.

“Texas fights weather every year, so varieties might look different here than they do in Missouri. We also hear about industry trends from across the belt.”

Phipps said a side trip to the International Textile Center in Lubbock pointed out areas where breeders need to concentrate efforts. A pre-tour conference on fiber quality improvement at the center pointed out the need for better quality. Phipps said touring the ITC facility also alerted breeders to mill problems.

“We heard about micronaire problems and maturity traits. We picked up some good ideas,” he said.

Phipps said whitefly infestations and the resulting sticky cotton problem also deserves attention. “Growers don't know how bad a sticky cotton problem can be to a mill manager,” he said. “A mill doesn't just slow down when it runs sticky cotton, it stops. “Different problems and different solutions, that's what we pick up on this tour,” Phipps said.

J.B. Weaver, a retired agronomist from the University of Georgia in Athens, said the tour affords him the rare opportunity of visiting with folks in the cotton breeding business. “I've been in the cotton business since I was 10-years old,” he said. “I started trying experiments with cotton when I was just a boy, studying fertility and bloom drop.”

Favors hybridization

Weaver worked on cotton hybrids for years but said few companies were interested in commercializing them. He thinks hybridization still makes sense as a means to increase yield and improve quality.

The Cotton Breeders' Tour is sponsored by Cotton Incorporated and alternates between five regions: The Texas High Plains, The Southeast, the Mid-South, South Texas and the Far West. The tour is held every other year.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com