Cotton varieties in the pipeline promise to bridge the gap between quality and yield. Talk about improving micronaire (mike) and staple length in cotton varieties has taken center stage over the last several years. But at least one university breeder calls the situation a “two-edged sword.”
The bottom line is, “It's not going to be long before the problem is solved,” believes Keith Edmisten, North Carolina State University Extension cotton specialist.
When the new varieties aimed at increasing fiber quality do get to the field, farmers need to proceed with caution, making certain the varieties they plant will give them the quality they need, Edmisten says.
In the meantime, there are a few things that producers can do to improve mike levels and staple length in the field.
It all starts with variety selection, Edmisten says. If the variety has high mike and low staple, there's very little that can be done to correct the problem.
It's a problem facing the entire Belt, Edmisten says. In effect, it affects the entire industry because high mike, low strength cotton causes problems at the mill.
“It's been a serious problem over the past several years,” Edmisten says.
Fiber quality in view
The pipeline at seed companies promises to bridge the gap between yield and quality.
Recent breeding efforts have merged the two characteristics — without sacrificing one or the other, says Tom Kerby, vice president of technical services at Delta and Pine Land and Company.
Two Delta and Pine Land varieties have shown promise in the field: DP 491 and DP 555 B/RR.
Kerby points to DP 491 as one of the newer varieties that has both low mike, long and strong staple, as well as yield. It was tested at six locations under harsh environmental conditions in south Texas. DP 491 had a mike of 4.37, length of 37 and strength of 32.1. It had yields of 1,143 pounds per acre, besting FM 958, FM 966, FM 989 and FM 832 in the tests, Kerby says.
“DP 491 has good yield ability in south Texas and the southern Delta,” Kerby says. “Fiber quality is exceptional.” DP 491 is a conventional variety, but the company is in the early testing stages with transgenic versions.
Two experimental varieties, 00S04 and 99M03, are also in the pipeline. 00S04 is an early maturing variety with good yield and length. 99M03 has very good yields and a dramatically reduced mike level and good staple length, Kerby says. 99M03 is showing a lot of promise in the heat of the Mid-South.
DP 555 B/RR, which is coming out next season in limited supply, is a full season variety with an exceptional yield and a good average fiber quality package, Kerby says.
“Some of the varieties reaching the market are going to set new standards in yield and fiber quality,” Kerby says. “Yield represents a summation of the favorableness of the season, while fiber length and micronaire are primarily affected by environments at specific times in the season.”
At Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Co., they're excited about three new varieties with improved yield and fiber quality.
ST 580, which was released this season, is a medium- to full-season variety with improved length and low mike. This coming season, Stoneville will release ST 457, an early- to mid-season variety, for the Mid-South and the Southeast.
ST X9905, an experimental variety, is also generating excitement at Stoneville. The variety has LA-887 as a recurrent parent. It is a medium- to full-season variety. It will offer a high-fiber quality package similar to its parent, says Dave Guthrie, head of technical services at Stoneville.
As important as fiber quality is right now, Guthrie and Gary Starwalt, Stoneville vice president of sales and marketing say, it still has not overtaken yield potential as the most important factor. “The possibility of premiums for fiber quality in the future could change that,” Guthrie says.
A different view
Daryl Bowman, North Carolina State University cotton breeder, says, “fiber quality used to be my Number One priority.
“Yield is my Number One priority and mike is a component of yield,” Bowman says. “It's a two-edged sword. Instead of providing a carrot (for fiber quality), the industry is using a stick and discounting. There are no premiums” for low-mike cotton.
The situation finds Bowman developing varieties with the minimum mike characteristics and high yield.
In his program, Bowman has been down the road of low mike. It led him to low-yielding varieties. He developed some lines that had 4.2 mike and 4.5 mike, but the yields were as much as 200 pounds lower than standard varieties. He figures that if a farmer plants a variety with a minimum mike of 4.9, then he can afford it if the yield doesn't drop by more than 70 pounds per acre.
“When you get mike down to that level (4.2 or 4.5), you reduce yield and that's where the farmer's money comes from,” Bowman says, pointing out one of the exceptions to that rule in North Carolina has been the FiberMax varieties that were developed in Australia.
“Looking at it long-term, breeders have been improving fiber quality without premiums,” Bowman says. “The industry is under the gun. If we cut quality, we'll lose market.”
To the textile industry, fiber quality is extremely important, Bowman says. Mills are going to higher-speed spinning equipment and require lower mike, higher strength cotton fiber.
“Until the industry provides an incentive for the grower to grow a lower-yielding cultivar, it doesn't pay” for the university breeder to develop varieties that focus on fiber quality, Bowman says. “I spent a lot of years developing high quality varieties with 200 pounds less yield,” Bowman says.
What you can do now
While variety is by far the most important consideration for fiber quality, there are some cultural practices that may help.
“One thing farmers can do is mix seed of a variety they want to grow with a variety that's lower in mike and higher in staple,” Edmisten says. “That could help bring the mike down and the staple strength up.”
Defoliation is another practice that can lead to increased grades, Edmisten says. “Good defoliation timing can have an impact on micronaire.”
He recommends defoliating when it's mature. “You can only do that by cutting bolls. That could be anywhere from 35 to 70 percent open.
“The key is to defoliate cotton on time when the bolls are mature — and not let it set in the field until 90 percent of the bolls are open,” Edmisten says. Timely defoliation could mean the difference between a 4.9 mike instead of a 5.1 mike rating.
Eliminating the stress on the crop is another way to increase the grade of cotton.
“If you can eliminate the stress on the plant and help early boll development, you're less likely to have low staple,” Edmisten says.
Irrigation keeps more bolls on the plant. The younger bolls on the plant are lower in mike. Lower bolls on the plant have a higher mike reading.
Edmisten says part of the problem has its roots in the yield versus quality issue. There's a fine line to walk sometimes between quality and yield.
“Some growers are just high on a variety because of yield and sometimes that can cause a shortage of seed,” he says. “When that happens, the growers take whatever Roundup variety they can get.
“In stacked-gene cotton, there's a wide range of quality,” Edmisten says. “There are good quality varieties out there, but there's a wide range.”
Before planting, he recommends checking out the results of variety trials in your state.
“Every variety has its strengths and weaknesses,” Edmisten says, “but there are varieties that you can choose that have better quality than others.”
“It's not going to be long before this problem is going to be solved,” Edmisten says. “We could start a big task force and breeding program, but if you look at what's in the pipeline at companies you see good varieties with high fiber quality.
“The main thing growers need to do is not rush into the next great technology as quickly as they did with Roundup cotton before they had a handle on it,” Edmisten says. “I don't think the problem was just the companies' fault.”