Cotton breeders search endlessly for new varieties to improve yields and quality for a wide array of growing conditions across America's Cotton Belt.

They hope against long odds to select those that travel well across many states, regions and the world.

However, it is rare that they find one like Deltapine's Acala 90, a variety bred exclusively for the San Joaquin Valley that was rejected there only to become one of the most widely planted cottons ever released because of its wide adaptability.

That variety's adaptability was serendipitous, and the same may be in the future of another new Deltapine cotton, 449BR, a recently released variety selected exclusively for Arizona by the company's western cotton breeder, Larry Burdett, and not expected to do well elsewhere.

That variety goes to the heart of a long-standing debate between some Arizona cotton growers and commercial seed companies. Growers argue companies have long used Arizona's ideal growing conditions to select varieties and grow planting seed better suited for the rest of the U.S. Cotton Belt than the relatively small 300,000-acre market.

No so, Burdett has long said.

Arizona picks

To prove his point, Burdett offers up 449BR, one of two sister varieties he selected specifically for Arizona because of their high heat tolerance and lower micronaire. 449BR was planted on several thousand acres this year in the state and is expected to be widely planted in 2003 in the state.

“It did better in our trials in Arizona than anywhere else,” said Burdett. “In the four field trials we have evaluated so far from 2002, 449 was one micronaire unit lower than 458BR (the most widely planted transgenic variety in the state) and it yielded 170 pounds more lint per acre.”

The new stacked transgenic did that in one of the hottest summers on record in Arizona with 110 days in Phoenix of more than 100 degrees this year, said Arizona Deltapine district sales manager Mike Farmer.

Burdett said 449 grows much like 5415, except that it is a bit more bush than 5415 and in hotter growing conditions does not cluster like 5415.

Burdett selected 449BR over its 2 percent higher-yielding sister line because of its lower micronaire. “Arizona growers are taking a 5 percent discount on micronaire,” he said. He gave up some yield, but not all of it. Fortunately, 449 yielded 170 pounds more lint per acre than 458 in Burdett's trials.

“In 2001 we had conflicting data on 449 micronaire, but we were hopeful it would be lower based on what we saw in our breeding work,” said Burdett. It looks like Burdett's hopes were rewarded.

However, he will feel more comfortable identifying 449BR as truly a lower micronaire cotton after a third yield of widespread plantings in 2003.

Often cite variety

Although researchers have determined micronaire is affected by weather, growing conditions and agronomics, variety is often cited by producers in discussions about Arizona's high micronaire problems.

The new Arizona variety is not the premier Deltapine corporate variety in the marketplace. That's 555BR, an Australian-developed variety with one of the highest turnout cottons the company has ever released.

“555 is a big bushy variety and that scares some people in Arizona, especially along the Colorado River where producers want to get yield early and be ready for produce,” said Farmer.

“We had some 458 and 555 Texas growers over for our field day last fall and they really liked what they saw in 449,” said Farmer. “I told them after I get my share for Arizona, they can have what's left,” he laughed.

Deltapine sells about 85 percent of seed planted in Arizona. This season 48 percent of the varieties sold were stacked genes (Bollgard and Roundup Ready), while 23 percent were Bollgard only and 12 percent Roundup Ready. Conventional varieties accounted for 16 percent, up 2 to 3 percent from the year before.

New refuge program

A new pink bollworm refuge program allowed by Monsanto for Arizona only afforded growers the opportunity to spread the technology cost of growing transgenic cotton by increasing refuge acreage from 4 to 10 percent to as high as 33 percent by interplanting non-Bt cotton within Bollgard fields. Bt cotton is Arizona's first line of defense against pink bollworm.

“I think growers were pretty happy with the bigger refuge. It allowed them to cheapen up in a low price cotton market,” said Farmer. In some cases, blending the varieties also reduced micronaire.

Farmer earlier had anticipated a cotton acreage increase in the state next season, but he has scaled that back in the wake of strong contract prices for durum wheat on the heels of a good yielding 2002 crop.

“After the farm bill was passed, I figured we'd see an acreage increase next season. However, as grower started talking about financing for 2003 with the good grain prices, I hope to be stable in our acreage from 2002 to 2003,” said Farmer. Arizona grew about 240,000 acres of cotton this season, including about 7,500 acres of Pima. Another good cotton year in 2003 could see a sharp increase in acreage in 2004.

Arizona has long been on the front line of transgenic cotton production, partly because of its reputation as a high quality seed producer. It was one of the first areas to grow Bt cotton for seed increase.

Two seed increase programs

Farmers said Deltapine has a pair of seed increase programs under way for the next generation of Bollgard cotton. “Hopefully Bollgard II will be approved soon. We have 33B and 125 types in increase,” said Farmer. This newer Bt-gene technology is expected to broaden the control of worm pests.

“What will be huge for Arizona and Western irrigated growers will be the Roundup Ready Enhanced cottons,” said Farmer. “It is tough sometimes to meet the timing of the current Roundup Ready technology with irrigated cotton. It will be huge for us when we can treat cotton up to the eighth leaf stage.”

“We have growers now who buy the Roundup Ready and do not use Roundup on it because they are not set up to treat it. They grow the transgenics for yield,” he said.

“Monsanto says they are two years out with Roundup Ready Enhanced. I figure it will be four before we have anything to sell,” he said.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com