As would be expected with any new cotton variety, Arizona's latest and grower-owned, AG3601, is getting mixed reviews in the early stages of its first harvest.

About 3,500 acres of AG3601 were planted this season, by design, in mostly small acreages by many growers to garner many looks in its inaugural season.

Coolidge, Ariz., producer Bruce Bartlett grew four fields of AG3601 this season. It was a learning experience, he said, but overall AG3601 yields look early to be comparable to other varieties he has farmed. He will plant more next season.

“AG3601 is a vigorous plant, especially on strong soils,” said Bartlett. “We are going to have to learn how to manage it — just like any new variety. When we do, I think it will be a great cotton for us,” he said.

AG3601 is owned by Arizona Cotton Growers Association (ACGA), the nation's only state cotton growers association with its own cotton-breeding program.

“It's about time we had our own varieties,” said Bartlett, reflecting the sentiment of many Arizona growers who believe they have not been getting Arizona-adaptable varieties from commercial seed companies. ACGA's establishment of a commercial breeding program is bold. It's being watched by other Cotton Belt states where producers have become frustrated by yield plateaus and declining lint quality from commercial varieties in an era of unprecedented low prices.

Return to prominence

Arizona cotton merchant Chris Warren of broker Handwerker-Winburne in Phoenix is one of ACGA's biggest cheerleaders. He believes the ACGA effort will return Arizona cotton to a marketplace prominence it lost over the past two decades.

“From what I have seen, the efforts of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association can bring Arizona cotton back to where it was 15 or 20 years — welcome anywhere in the world, “ he told about 150 producers at the ACGA's second annual field day recently near Eloy, Ariz.

Arizona cotton has suffered deep discounts in recent years, partly from first severe stickiness and later a stigma long after growers reduced the stickiness. At the same time, Arizona cotton quality began to decline, particularly due to high micronaire and excessive neps.

The stickiness problem is “pretty much under control,” said Warren, thanks to improved pest management measures and a greater awareness of what stickiness can do to cotton marketability.

“We are opening up markets every day for Arizona cotton,” said Warren, now that the stickiness controversy is fading. New varieties like those from ACGA's variety development program with higher strength, premium micronaire levels, longer fiber and reduced short fiber content will hopefully open up even more markets, he said.

Proof that Arizona's stickiness stigma is fading came after last year's harvest when Arizona cotton was substituted for California cotton because of problems with widespread stickiness in San Joaquin Valley cotton.

Frustration grows

Arizona cotton industry leaders have become increasingly frustrated with commercial variety availability over the past decade. Many contend commercial seed companies were not delivering varieties fully adaptable to Arizona's hot growing conditions. Their argument is that Arizona was used primarily as a planting seed producing area and seed companies were offering Arizona growers only varieties that traveled well across the Belt and not necessarily best suited for the desert.

Arizona producers have not been a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Over the past few years producer Beltwide have become frustrated with plateaued yields and reduced quality. Grower-directed Cotton Incorporated is spending $700,000 this year supporting public cotton breeding efforts. Most are through universities, according to Roy Cantrell, former New Mexico cotton breeder and now CI's new vice president of agricultural research. That number is budgeted to increase to $1.3 million next year.

“Arizona is the only place where we are supporting a grower-funded breeding effort,” Cantrell said.

“We are proud to be supporting Arizona Cotton Growers Association's efforts because it meets the goals of what Cotton Incorporated is trying to do…improve the profitability of cotton for producers by creating value-added cotton into the world marketplace,” he told producers at the field day.

He said much of CI-supported work is focusing on greatly improving the quality of U.S. cotton. “To move forward, we have to raise the quality of cotton,” he said.

Fine selection

ACGA's cotton breeder, Michael Gilbert, agrees wholeheartedly. “I think we have a fine selection of experimental lines coming on as part of our commitment to go forward to improve quality as well as yields.”

Gilbert is a former cotton breeder for Delta and Pine Land Co. and Helena Chemical who has been an independent breeder before he was hired by ACGA. He is the son of legendary former Delta and Pine Land breeder Elmer Gilbert.

Michael Gilbert's efforts suffered a setback last year when his nursery was damaged by herbicide drift. However, another long time independent Arizona cotton breeder, Ron Thorpe, stepped in to help Gilbert.

Thorpe allowed Gilbert to use his crossing block to make selections last year. Another independent Arizona breeder, Jim Olvey, also contributed to Gilbert's efforts by giving him experimental Acala lines to cross into Arizona-adaptable varieties. Olvey, based in Arizona, has developed several Pima and Acala varieties for California's San Joaquin Valley that have won approval from the San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board.

However, it was Thorpe, former Delta and Pine Land Co. quality control director in Arizona, who gave ACGA's fledgling effort the biggest boost off the launching pad.

Boon to ACGA

He had several high quality cotton varieties in development for South American markets, but marketing agreements did not materialize. He offered his more promising ones to ACGA, and one became AG3601.

“What Ron did for us was advance our program seven or eight years virtually overnight,” said Pinal County producer Bill Scott, head of ACGA's seed breeding development committee. Thorpe not only granted ACGA exclusive rights to AG3601, but also first rights of refusal to other cottons in his program.

And, these are no slouch cottons. According to Thorpe he is selecting varieties aiming for 1.25-inch length; 30 grams per text strength and 4.2-4.4 micronaire ranges. “Cotton will make a comeback in Arizona, but we must have quality to create the niche markets we need to succeed economically. I think the cottons we have developed so far meet the quality criteria Arizona needs.”

Ten of Thorpe's selections were showcased at the field day in mid-October, and Gilbert said one or two be planted for seed increase next season.

In unprecedented voting, Scott asked producers at the field day to rank the cottons. “I may like one cotton, but someone may like another. What we want is everyone's opinion so we can develop the cotton growers want,” said Scott. “We are ready to increase varieties next year from Ron's program.”

Scott said he is “extremely happy” with his AG3601 this season. Early classing information indicates quality is very good, he added.

Soils critical

However, he admitted it is a cotton variety that must be managed based on soil conditions. “On strong ground you have to Pix it hard and early to get it to set bottom bolls. We hit ours at about only four inches high. Once you do that, it will march right up the stalk setting fruit.

“We tried to let people know that 3601 will go rank on strong ground if you do not control it. I am disappointed because we did not get the word out like we should have. You have to keep the insects off early, too, to get it setting fruit low on the plant,” he said, adding, however, that growers planting it on weaker soils were the most pleased with it.

Another of its attributes is seedling vigor, said Scott. “It has the kind of seedling we used to get years ago,” he said.

“It jumps out of the ground,” said Queen Creek, Ariz., producer Steve Sossaman.

It is a columnar cotton, even more so than Deltapine 90, once the most widely planted cotton in Arizona and the U.S. AG 3601 parentage includes 90.

“The first year I planted 90 I hated it. However, it was because I did not know how to grow it. Once we learned how to grow it, it became one of the best varieties we ever had. Unfortunately, it seemed to change the longer we grow it,” said Scott.

“AG 3601 is even more stovepipe than 90. I am real excited about what I have seen with the twin-line AG3601 Steve Husman planted this season,” said Scott Husman, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension agricultural agent for Pinal and Pima counties, has extensive twin-line planting trials throughout the state where he has planted a wide array of varieties two rows per bed.

“We can plant AG3601 much closer in the row and down the seed line than we do our cottons now. I planted it on 38-inch rows and wasted a lot of space,” said Scott.