Plateau…excuse me?…what plateau? No plateaus in California's San Joaquin Valley — geologically or in its cotton fields.

A year ago yield and quality plateauing were the buzz at the annual gathering of America's cotton growers at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences.

California was heralded as the exception then, primarily because of its mandated high quality fiber standards. This year California's 2002 record average yields performance of almost 1,400 pounds of lint per acre did nothing to dim the focus on California.

“I had people asking at Beltwide this year ‘how do you guy do it in the San Joaquin,’” said Joel Mahill, applied cotton breeder and station manager for Phytogen Seed Co., Corcoran, Calif.

“I told them the San Joaquin Valley represents a community of very progressive farmers and a cotton growing industry that pays close attention to variety performance through the San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board's testing program,” said Mahill.

And, what they have been watching over the past five years is Phytogen 72, a variety from a relatively unknown seed breeding company winding its way through the arduous SJV cotton board testing program.

“When you talk about yield plateau, Phytogen 72 is the answer for the San Joaquin Valley — there is no plateau,” said Mahill.

Quickly dominates

It was available only on a limited basis in 2000 and available valleywide in 2001 after winning approval for release as an Acala. It quickly captured 30 percent of the valley's 2002 short staple acreage and is expected to exceed 50 percent of the upland acreage this season. It has relegated the valley's standard Maxxa to near obscurity, and Phytogen, a division of Dow AgroSciences, plans to petition the board to make Phytogen 72 the new valley standard against which all other Acalas are measured for official release.

Maxxa is not the only thing it wants to dethrone. It is also challenging the economics of transgenic cotton.

The reason is simply yield — not herbicide resistance; not insect resistance; not disease resistance. YIELD.

Fresno County veteran pest control advisor Galen Hiett said it was Phytogen's consistency that surprised him. “I had one grower in the Cantua Creek area that had three fields of 72 and they all yielded the same, four-tenths of a bale more than the next highest yielding cotton,” he said.

It consistently produced four bales, and five bales were not that rare in 2001. It was the talk of the coffee shops and ginyards last season. That talk is cheap, but indisputable numbers are there to back up talk because of the public testing programs conducted not only by the cotton board, but the University of California as well.

When Dan Munk began his career as UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Fresno County, the largest cotton producing county in the six-county SVJ cotton producing area, Maxxa was winding its way through the SJV cotton board.

“It created quite a stir, offering a 5 to 6 percent yield increase over the standards then — GC-510 and SJ-2,” said Munk.

Variety excitement

”Now we have a variety, Phytogen 72, that has shown yield increases of 15 to 19 percent over Maxxa in many large scale tests over multiple years,” said Munk.

“I am more excited about new varieties than I have ever been,” said Munk.

David Anderson, global leader for cotton breeding for Dow AgroSciences and head of research and development for Phytogen Seeds, said Phytogen 72 has raised the yield bar to new heights.

“However, there are varieties coming behind it that have the same kind of potential,” he added.

Steve Oakley, director of research and chief cotton breeder for California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors, the developer of Maxxa, admits his competition's Phytogen 72 had raised the bar to dizzy heights. However, he does not believe the bar is so high he cannot hurdle it with new varieties.

“We do not have anything new coming out until next year, but we have some new Acalas and Pimas up for approval this spring and in the years ahead we think they are going to be dynamite,” said Oakley.

That is no idle boast.

The SJV cotton board 2001 variety trials list three CPCSD varieties among four varieties that yielded ahead of Phytogen in average yields across eight locations. The yield increases were not in the 12 percent to 15 percent range as Phytogen has been against its competition, but they show that the king of the mountain is not secure.

Most beat Maxxa

There were 16 varieties in the trial and 13 beat Maxxa. None were transgenic. The only transgenic in the trial finished last.

In those eight trials, only two varieties topped two separate trial locations. Four different varieties topped the other four.

This speaks to what University of California Extension Cotton Specialist Bob Hutmacher continually preaches: No single variety will perform exceptionally everywhere. Look at all trial results and find the best one that performed under a grower's similar conditions.

Phytogen 72 is the talk of the town, but even it did not do exceptional everywhere. Los Banos, Calif., consultant Mark Carter said Maxxa continues to perform well in the northern end of the valley, generally better than Phytogen 72.

This year's Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton award winner Daniel Burns of San Juan Ranch, Dos Palos, Calif., said Phytogen 72 did not yield as well as Riata RR on his farm. “However, I am not going to give up. I think with any new variety you have to learn how to grow it under your conditions,” he said.

Anderson agrees. Phytogen's strongest showing seemed to come from the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley and in Tulare County, but Anderson claims that the SJV cotton board trials proves it is widely adapted.

“Growers need to work with new varieties to maximize their potential on their own particular farm,” he said.

If there is a knock on the SJV cotton board trials, it is that all cottons are grown under the same conditions in each trial. That, critics claim, may limit the yield potential for some entries. That was validated even with a barnburner like Phytogen 72. Mahill said many growers over the past two seasons have recorded yield increase well beyond the 15 percent level logged in public trials.

Negates trait

The yield bar has been raised so high, so quickly, that in many cases yield is negating the value of a herbicide resistance trait.

Hanford, Calif., consultant Nick Groenenberg said Phytogen 72 recorded yield increases of from 2.7 bales per acre to the 3.5-bale level in several of his growers' fields and were cleaner than Roundup Ready cotton fields.

“MSMA and Staple did a good job last year and if there is a grass problem, you can come back with something like Prism,” he said.

“Today's growers have to pick the cotton that picks the most cotton and reduce the cost of production as much as possible,” said Groenenberg.

Oakley agrees that Phytogen 72 has elevated yield to an even higher level of importance than transgenic traits in the San Joaquin Valley.

Mahill agrees. “Farmers have to look at a systems approach — weigh the value of the tech fee plus the cost of transgenic seed against cost of production and yield potential.”

If yield wins out over the value of weed control in a transgenic, Mahill said that's where SJV growers will go. They are proving that.

However, Anderson points out that there remain places where weed pressure can be so high, herbicide resistance varieties would be a grower's first choice to ensure that weeds do not reduce yields.

The no-plateau San Joaquin breeding programs are reaching into other Cotton Belt areas. CPCSD has a variety that came in No. 2 in yields in Georgia and another one that topped a trial in Arizona.

Phytogen is developing a variety that has yielded well in Southern states.

Other considerations

However, Mahill points out that there is a different seed marketing environment outside of California.

“You have insect pressures in the Southern states we do not have in the San Joaquin Valley where trait varieties with the Bt gene are much more important to growers,” he said.

Phytogen and CPCSD are not abandoning transgenic development for the San Joaquin. In fact CPCSD hired former University of Arizona cotton breeder Hal Moser to head up its biotechnology department.

However, it is clear that yield enhancement is priority No. 1 in SJV cotton breeding.

One of comebacks often used by those criticized for yield plateaus is that increasing yields sacrifice quality. That doesn't seem to be the case in the San Joaquin.

One merchant commented that the quality bar has done up along with the yield, especially over the past five years. “It used to be that when you told a mill you have a 35 (strength) cotton, they would take notice. Today when you tell someone you have a 35 from the San Joaquin, you hear ‘what else have you got,” said one merchant.

That is reflected in this year's classing results. Through the end of January, more than 8 percent of the cotton classed by the USDA classing office in Visalia graded 35 strength or higher. No other U.S. classing office even had 1 percent 35 or higher.

Seldom has one cotton variety had the impact of Phytogen 72. It has raised the yield and quality bar other areas of the U.S. Cotton Belt can only hope for.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com