Seed company execs discuss varieties The next wave of new and improved cotton varieties is just around the corner, and U.S. producers should be benefiting from this development in the next three to four years, says Thomas "Bud" Hughes, president and general manager of Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Company, Inc.

Hughes participated in a panel discussion on cotton variety improvement at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Anaheim, Calif.

"Throughout most of the past century, cotton breeders have focused on developing better varieties of cotton, including improved yield, quality, disease tolerance and other factors," said Hughes. "And while it doesn't take as long today to develop a new variety, it's still a long and complex process."

The variety development timeline formerly was anywhere from 12 to 15 years, and sometimes longer, he said. Working within this timeline, companies typically released one new variety every two to three years, he added. "Blockbuster" varieties, such as Stoneville 213 and DPL 50 were released every 15 to 20 years.

The timeline was shortened, said Hughes, with the advent of biotechnology. "We looked at what technology could bring in terms of value and decided we couldn't wait 15 years before bringing this technology into the marketplace.

"So, we employed the old method of back-crossing to shorten the time it takes to introduce a new variety. With back-crossing, we placed this new technology into existing varieties rather than developing new varieties."

Responding to growers' concerns about yield and quality, Hughes said that varieties have played a role. "There are concerns about the decline of fiber quality, and we do play a role in this. Over the past several years, growers have switched rapidly to transgenic technologies, at an amazing growth rate of 15 percent annually over the past five years. This year, 73 percent of the U.S. crop was planted in transgenic technologies," he said.

To acquire this technology, growers often have switched maturities, varieties and fiber properties, noted Hughes. "This has brought about a concentration of a few varieties. We're not doing a good job of spreading our risks. This has been coupled with poor growing conditions. Environment is part of the reason for decreasing fiber and yield quality over the past few years. Environment is part of it, variety is part of it, and there probably are other factors that we don't understand."

The work of getting biotechnology into the marketplace now is completed, said Hughes. Biotechnology, he says, is widely available in several maturity and gene combinations.

"So, breeders again are focusing on developing new variety combinations as their top priority. Along the way, we've developed new methodologies and technologies to bring varieties to the market in a shorter amount of time. We've decreased the developmental timeline from 12 to 15 years to seven to 10 years.

"The future is bright for cotton varieties because new technologies have resulted in more dollars going back into cotton plant breeding. Cotton plant breeding today is being funded by the dollars generated to the seed companies through biotechnology."

Back-crossing again will be a priority when a new trait is to be introduced into the marketplace, said Hughes. "As seed companies, we have to differentiate ourselves from the others by making better varieties."

To more accurately compare the yield and quality of conventional varieties to transgenic varieties, Delta and Pine Land Company has developed an Agronomic Information System (AIS) that compiles information from field, breeder and public sector trials, says Tom Kerby, the company's vice president of technical services.

"The AIS data allows us to compare varieties side-by-side, in the same environment. It has helped us to answer questions about the yield and quality of the U.S. cotton crop during the past decade," said Kerby.

Environmental components and varietal shifts in terms of what growers are planting have had an impact on yield and quality in recent years, he said.

In a head-to-head comparison of old varieties to current varieties, in the same environment, yields have improved in the past 10 years, said Kerby.

The goal of any variety improvement program - better yield and quality - hasn't changed in recent years, says Jane Dever, head of cotton breeding and product development for Aventis CropScience and another member of the Beltwide panel.

"Only the tools that are available have changed," said Dever. "As a seed company, we can't lose a strong focus on conventional germplasm variety development.

"If the variability for traits such as improved yield or stress and disease resistance exists within the cotton genome, then we should exploit that and bring those traits forward in conventional breeding. We must take the risk of making complex crosses and not rely strictly on existing varieties or our germplasm pool."

Germplasm development, she said, should comprise at least 10 percent of a breeding program.

"We also should focus on regionalized breeding with goal-based objectives for each region. And, to be successful in our variety development program, we must utilize the research community for the independent evaluation of varieties and technology. Tools from the research community should be used to bring forward both conventional and transgenic germplasms," said Dever.

There is an important grower component in variety development, she said. "We get our objectives from the grower. If the textile industry's objective is better fiber quality, then the grower's objective also is better fiber quality in a package of improved yield and adaptability that will enhance their overall profitability."