That may be a bit higher than most people would expect since herbicide-tolerance is relatively new in California, but "in hindsight it is probably not that surprising," said cotton breeder Hal Moser who heads up CPCSD’s biotechnology program. Herbicide tolerance cotton varieties were quickly adopted in the rest of the belt and there is no reason to expect it to be different in California, he surmised.

According to Monsanto, about 40 percent of the valley’s acreage was planted to Roundup Ready cotton varieties from all seed companies. About 15 percent was in Buctril-resistant or BXN cottons.

The herbicide-resistant cottons on the market today are only the beginning of the California cotton biotechnology revolution as cotton growers heard recently at CPCSD’s Cotton Expo 2003 at the company’s Shafter, Calif., research station.

A new, higher yielding BXN CPCSD cotton variety is eligible for release this spring by the San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board along with an improved replacement for Ultima, CPCSD’s non-transgenic, premium fiber cotton. Both are showing higher yields and improved quality in testing.

Roller-ginned Ultima is now selling for 10 to 12 cents per pound more than Acalas. Part of this is because of current high Pima prices. Mills can substitute Ultima for Pima in some uses.

In the biotechnology arena, CPCSD’s vice president of research Steve Oakley told field day visitors CPCSD is evaluating 100 lines of Liberty Link Acala cottons, and Moser is working on introducing Monsanto’s Roundup Flex gene into high quality Acalas. This second generation Roundup-resistant gene for cotton will allow producers to apply glyphosate beyond the cotton’s four-leaf stage, now the cutoff for Roundup use over the top of the plant to prevent yield loss.

More time welcome

This extended window is expected to be particularly welcome in the West where irrigation and the early-cutoff for the current Roundup technology can pose timing problems for producers. Roundup Flex is expected to be available in 2006, according to Moser.

The technology is awaiting EPA approval, but Moser said "we are trying to expedite it now" so it can be available in CPCSD Acalas as soon as possible.

Moser is also in the early stages of evaluating a Buctril-resistant Pima. There are no transgenic Pima varieties now available. Phytogen is developing a Roundup Ready Pima.

Liberty Link is a new technology from Bayer CropScience. Liberty herbicide’s active ingredient is gluphosinate. FiberMax will be introducing Liberty Link cotton varieties outside of California this year. It will be several more years before a Liberty Link Acalas can be released in California because new cotton varieties must go through three years of San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board testing before being released. However, they can be grown commercially as experimentals while going through board evaluation.

Like the new Roundup Flex, Liberty Link cotton has a longer application window, up to the 10th leaf.

Liberty herbicide is particularly effective on morningglory, one of more troublesome weeds for California producers. It also represents another weed control active ingredient, an important element in resistance management.

Herbicide-resistance is only half cotton’s biotechnology story. Resistance to worm pests is the other, but most people have thought that technology would find, at best, limited economic viability in California.

That is changing with increased pest pressure from armyworms and loopers over the past several years in several areas of the San Joaquin and the impending release of a new Bt gene from Monsanto for cotton, Bollgard II.

Bollgard, the first generation Bt technology, is effective on pink bollworm and cotton bollworm, neither major pests in the San Joaquin.

Bollgard II interest

Oakley said there is increasing grower interest in Bollgard II which not only controls pink bollworm and cotton bollworm, but also armyworms, and loopers as well.

For the past 30 years, pink bollworm has been kept out of the San Joaquin with a monitoring and biological control program using sterile moths funded by growers via $2 per bale assessments and operated by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Oakley acknowledged that some growers have expressed a desire to drop the pinkie program in favor of Bt cotton.

"It all depends on the economics — the technology fee," said Oakley. "Growers are looking at every cost — even the pink bollworm program bale assessment, as small as it is."

Bt cotton in Arizona has been widely adapted and greatly reduced the pesticides sprays for all insects in the state. Bollgard genes are especially effective against pink bollworm, even more so than on other heliothis pests.

BT cotton has been grown in the San Joaquin, primarily for seed production. The technology fee charged Central California growers has been significantly less that what is charged Arizona cotton growers because worms pose less of an economic threat than they do in Arizona.

This new biotechnology era could make it less costly to grow cotton, but it is high quality and top yields that endear a variety to growers, according to Oakley.

California’s produces the highest quality uplands in the U.S. Acalas bring a premium over other growths, but they also represent a target for other areas of the nation.

"Other areas of the Cotton Belt, especially Texas, have shown significant gains in quality in recent year and that is why we must stay ahead with our California Acala cottons," said Oakley.

Only best varieties

The new biotechnology genes will only be introduced into improved quality and higher yielding varieties, said Oakley.

Unfortunately, the cotton pie continues to get smaller for seed companies in California. This year there were only about 670,000 acres of cotton in the central valley and 135,000 of that was Pima. A decade ago there were 1 million acres of cotton in the San Joaquin.

Van Skike has projected that Acala/upland acreage will drop in 2004 to about 520,000 acres, but Pima should take a sharp jump to about 220,000 because of improved prices.

Calcot is projecting 590,000 acres of Acala/uplands and 185,000 acres of Pima. This year there are 536,000 acres of Acala/Upland and about 135,000 acres of Pima, according to a survey by the Pink Bollworm Program.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com