Variety selection is the single most important decision a cotton grower will make in 2008, according Kater Hake, vice-president for research for Cotton Incorporated. He adds, “brand loyalty extends no farther than wearing a free cap.”

“Cotton variety improvement is the long-term cornerstone of cotton’s future, both in terms of yield and consumer demand,” Hake says.

Millions of people worldwide are coming out of poverty every year. These people want higher quality food and fiber. They will demand quality textile products and cotton continues to grow in popularity worldwide. All these factors put cotton growers in a good position in the long-run, but it also demands growers have the flexibility to change quickly to meet world demands.

With such a high percentage of U.S.-grown cotton going to foreign markets, what variety a grower grows may impact its marketability to foreign buyers. For example, 35-40 percent of world cotton usage goes to fine grades, 40-45 percent to coarse grades and the remaining 10-20 percent to medium grades.

In the U.S. we have historically grown primarily medium grades, which is demanded by the U.S. textile market, but puts us at a disadvantage in foreign markets.

Hake says the Catch-22 is that it takes 10-15 years to get new varieties, with new technology to the market. In most cases it takes 4-7 years just to field test varieties with genetically altered traits. Knowing what the world market will demand 10-15 years into the future is a real challenge.

The drought of 2007 had a major impact on yield in the Southeast. “However, yield reductions did not correlate with reduced quality. That is a testament to the ability of some of the newer cotton varieties to tolerate stress without significantly reducing fiber strength or length,” Hake says.

The Southeast is further challenged on quality issues because of a lack of irrigation. In the upper Southeast there is virtually no cotton irrigation in Virginia, 1 percent in North Carolina and 4 percent in South Carolina.

In the lower Southeast, 18 percent of the Georgia crop has irrigation capability, 4 percent in Alabama and 9 percent in Florida.

Despite the production challenges, over the past 10 years, cotton yields have increased 31 pounds per acre. Hake says improvements in germplasm account for 15 pounds of the increase. The other 16 pounds, he says, is due to increased management skills, primarily the ability of growers to adapt new varieties and other technology to their farms.

In particular, Hake contends growers have zeroed in on specific traits of specific varieties and they have adapted these on field-by-field basis to their farm.

“This combination of improvement in varieties and adaptation of varieties to specific growing conditions continues to offer yield improvements in the future,” he adds.

The 2007 drought in the Southeast is likely just the beginning of weather-related challenges, according to Hake. “Global warming and dramatic shifts in weather patterns over the next few years will be a challenge, but one the U.S. grower is better suited to managing than other cotton growing countries of the world.” Again, he says, the best approach to managing stress is to select varieties that best handle it.

Hake adds that herbicide resistance and nematode management are other challenges facing U.S. cotton growers. The development of new varieties and new genetic traits also will prove to be pivotal in managing these challenges, the CI expert says.

“Choosing the right variety has always been the tip of the spear when it comes to growing high yielding, high quality cotton, The reality is that as more technology is added to new varieties, the importance of good varietal selection will grow more quickly than in the past, he says.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com