As a cotton breeder, Roy Cantrell worked to develop varieties with high yields and high quality. As Cotton Incorporated's vice president of agricultural research and the head of its new Cotton Breeding and Genetics initiative, he intends on making the goal of breaking the yield barrier and increasing fiber quality a moving target, coordinating the efforts of breeders all across the Belt.

Backed by three-quarters of a million dollars and an increase in ag research, Cotton Incorporated's Breeding and Genetics Initiative is designed to “unclog the yield and fiber quality drain by getting more evaluation and breeding material into the pipeline.”

Cotton Incorporated spent two years looking at the status of cotton breeding and cultivar development. They identified three gaps in the public sector.

First and foremost, Cotton Incorporated found a lack of coordination and collaboration in the evaluation of breeding material in the public sector due mainly to a lack of funding. The initiative is long on coordination, bringing together breeders from different regions of the Cotton Belt. About 25 scientists are working with the initiative from their posts either at USDA or land-grant universities.

The second area of concern is testing. The initiative will begin a network of testing and evaluation that would “go beyond the normal evaluation of fiber quality,” Cantrell says.

The third area involves setting up research to enhance the germplasm base of cotton and break the yield plateau.

A fellowship program for Ph.D. students is also part of the initiative. It involves getting the best minds and hands to work with cotton breeders.

“At New Mexico State University, I learned if you're not continually selecting for and trying to understand the genetics behind those traits, the gains will go away or decline,” Cantrell says. “Our competition is not Australia, China or India. In the long-term, our competition is manmade fibers.”

Coordination of plant breeders will be across the Belt, Cantrell says. A southern regional network will involve lower Mississippi Delta states. Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina will be in another network. Missouri and Arkansas will coordinate the northern cotton area. Breeders from different areas of the Cotton Belt will also work together.

“Almost all of the projects involve more than one state,” Cantrell says.

One project involves Daryl Bowman, the North Carolina State University cotton breeder, working with breeders in Mississippi and the upper Southeast to expand the genetic diversity of cotton germplasm.

A project at Texas A&M and the University of Arkansas is working on getting genes from wild species into the hands of breeders as quickly as possible. “Much of this will involve Cotton Inc.'s increased support and coordination with the cotton winter nursery in southern Mexico,” Cantrell says. Using the nursery in southern Mexico will cut in half the time it takes to develop germplasm.

In addition to focusing on germplasm, the initiative also raises the bar in the testing and evaluation realm, Cantrell says.

“We plan to initiate a network of testing and evaluation which would go beyond the normal evaluation of fiber quality,” Cantrell says. “We want to change that and provide more data in a more precise way.” Researchers will be looking at end-product quality that goes beyond HVI, Cantrell says. “We will be looking at micro spinning samples to get more of an appreciation of what the final product will look like.

“All of this testing will help us get more information on the genetic potential for fiber quality,” Cantrell says.

“The goal is to optimize fiber quality, but to measure its stability along areas and years,” Cantrell says. “One of the most misunderstood components about quality is the influence the environment plays. We want to determine whether certain varieties are susceptible to producing high micronaire when it's a certain temperature in August. We want to determine how stable the quality is.”

Cotton Inc. feels like the testing portion of the initiative will increase the value of university germplasm and provide pre-commercial germplasm that companies can use.

As part of Cotton Incorporated's initiative, Fred Bourland at the University of Arkansas is looking at the building blocks of yields and how those can be manipulated.

“Can you increase the number of fibers or the density of those fibers on the seed and do it in a way that will be stable across many environments?” Cantrell asks.

There are different theories about unlocking optimum yield in a cotton plant, Cantrell says. “We need to explore several of these so that we can improve yield and reduce the variability.”

One theory suggests increased yield lies in increasing the number of bolls per acre. “But that might not be the most stable way to increase yield because the plant may abort some of those bolls — we don't know. That's why we need to study it further,” Cantrell says.

To aid in the work, Cotton Incorporated offered this year a fellowship program to lure top students to do Ph.D. studies with cotton breeders.

“We're getting the best and brightest minds to work with these scientists, students who would have been going off to medical school,” Cantrell says. Cotton Inc. offers an attractive stipend to the graduate students. “The response has been overwhelming. We're getting students with near-perfect grade point averages.”

The bottom line to producers is, Cotton Incorporated is not trying to turn into a seed company, Cantrell says. “We feel like we can dramatically impact research in the public sector and can benefit everyone.”

The former New Mexico State University cotton breeder feels like high-yielding, high-quality germplasm is already out there. “We at Cotton Incorporated have to be a catalyst to bring that germplasm to the private seed companies. Things have to be done differently.”

The tendency in plant breeding is to have an “ebb and flow” based on discounts. But breeders can't operate that way. “We have to be leaders and look to the future,” Cantrell says.

“It's a difficult research effort to improve fiber quality and yields, but we have to understand what genes are involved,” Cantrell says. “The perception is that we're competing against other countries and to a certain extent that's true.”

But, says Cantrell, there's a limit to competing on price. “There's a limit to how cheap cotton can be grown. In terms of fiber quality, you're dealing with an engineered product in synthetics.”

“Manmade products are a moving target,” Cantrell says. “And in terms of yield and fiber quality, cotton also has to be on a stable upward turn.”