Southwestern cotton producers face some of the most daunting challenges of anyone in the Cotton Belt. Limited rainfall makes water use efficiency a prerequisite, but growers also understand that a late summer or early fall storm can play havoc with yield and quality. And then there are all the in-season calamities than can destroy a crop.

Selecting cotton varieties that tolerate drought, resist insect damage and hold onto mature bolls in adverse weather can be one of the most important activities growers perform each year. And cottonseed companies continue to search for even better options to improve growers' chances against often-difficult odds.

Below is the fourth in a series of stories outlining some of the efforts cotton breeding programs are undertaking to improve options for Southwest farmers.

Storm resistance remains a primary focus for cotton breeders looking for higher-yielding varieties that also turn out fiber characteristics that won't get penalized in the classing office.

“Storm resistance is important to this area,” says Steve Calhoun, cotton breeder for Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Company in West Texas. Calhoun develops and evaluates potential new varieties at Stoneville's research station near Idalou, a few miles east of Lubbock, and at 14 off-station test sites scattered across the High Plains. He also uses research nursery sites in South Africa and Arizona.

Along with high yield potential, storm tolerance and good fiber qualities, Calhoun says farmers also want transgenic characteristics.

“We've seen tremendous demand for Roundup Ready varieties in Texas,” he says. Stoneville's Texas-specific breeding program “is just getting started,” Calhoun says.

“But we have two new storm proof varieties for potential release in 2004 that we're excited about.”

He says currently available varieties are either picker types or represent Stoneville's transition to true stripper types. ST 3539BR is a Bollgardstacked Bollgard/Roundup Ready variety related to Stoneville 132.

“It performed very well in 2001 and 2002 commercial production fields” he says. “It shows improved storm resistance and performs well under irrigation. Under drought conditions, ST 3539BR may produce shorter fibers.”

He says ST 2454R is a straight Roundup Ready variety, also out of Stoneville 132, that, “even though it's not as storm proof as we would like, it produces good yields and tends not to produce high mic cotton. It's the horse for the northern Texas High Plains.” ST 2454R adapts well from Lubbock north and may do well in the Kansas cotton area.

“We're seeing cotton move farther north, primarily because of water availability,” Calhoun says. “We need an early-maturing, stripper variety to fit that market.”

ST 4892BR, a stacked picker variety related to ST 474 “looks real good,” Calhoun says. “The Bollgard gene helps farmers with sub-threshold worm infestations. It's a good choice for Texas because of lowof low, but frequently prolonged, worm pressure and usually does enough better to pay for technology fees.”

ST 4793R is a straight Roundup Ready version of the same germplasm.

“ST 5303R is a Roundup Ready variety that represents brand new picker germplasm, ” Calhoun says. “This is a smooth-leaf variety with good fiber qualities and fuller-season maturity to take advantage of the longer growing season from Lubbock south.”

“Right now, farmers are using more picker varieties to get better yield potential,” he says. “In the very near future we plan to provide varieties with the yield and fiber quality of picker types, but in a storm-proof boll.”

Nematode resistance is becoming an increasingly important variety trait in the High Plains, and Calhoun says ST 5599BR has shown excellent root knot nematode tolerance in university trials conducted by Dr. Terry Wheeler, a pathologist with the Texas Agricultural Experiment. Station in Lubbock, and others.

He says a high nematode population with limited Temik did little yield damage in those trials. “ST 5599BR made a good yield and good quality. It's a top producer in yield trials.”

Calhoun says developing new cotton varieties “from scratch is a time-consuming process. That's why we send some new lines to South Africa for seed production during our winter. South Africa harvests in April, when we are just getting ready to plant.”

He gets two crops a year from his breeding work using the South African plots.

He says producing research seed in Arizona provides back up for the Texas program. “In the High Plains we are subject to hail storms that can wipe out many years' work,” he says.

“We also have a lot of bee activity in Idalou that can cause unintended out-crossing and compromise seed purity. Bee activity is less of a concern in Arizona.

“For West Texas producers to remain competitive in the world market, we've got to maximize our returns. We can do that either through cutting costs and keeping yields the same (a very difficult feat to achieve), or by increasing yields and holding costs constant,” Calhoun says.

Managing expenses requires putting money where it's needed, but not wasting money on inputs that don't have a proven track record for improving yields. Planting good genetics — high yielding, high quality varieties — is one of the areas where farmers can increase yields with little or no additional expensexpense.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com