Improving cotton fiber quality characteristics to meet increasingly stringent international demands tops the list of cotton breeders' concerns, expressed during a tour through the southeastern edge of the Cotton Belt.
Cotton breeders from both public and private domains tour research and development programs every other year, alternating between the Southeast, the Mid-South, the Southwest and Western production regions.
The most recent tour covered North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia research facilities, Cotton Incorporated and other cotton-related industries along the way.
“Quality demand in the world market will continue to drive variety development,” said Wayne Smith, Texas A&M cotton breeder at College Station. “Yield is always a factor for farmers, but they must be able to sell it,” he said.
Smith said breeders are looking at a number of factors to improve cotton production efficiency, but quality must be part of the equation. He said research into drought tolerance may focus on a grower's ability to produce fiber quality acceptable to the world market, even under drought stress.
“Fiber length, is important,” he said. “Length under irrigated conditions may be 37 but in dry conditions drop to 32 or 33, not an acceptable level in the world marketplace.”
He said research into improving uniformity also plays a key role in improving marketability of U.S. cotton.
Much of Smith's work at College Station and in central and south Texas locations is geared toward increasing germplasm.
“We want a broader genetic base,” he said. Efforts include both cultivated cotton and wild material from Mexico and other tropical locations.
“We look for unique fiber qualities and select plants that elevate the level of HVI fiber qualities,” he said.
Traditional breeding work plays a crucial role in developing better material, Smith said. Transgenic varieties come from backcrosses of traditional materials. “When we develop better material, they can put (traits) into these improved varieties. The public sector needs to work in true germplasm development. Cotton is a mature industry and private breeders have neither the time nor the mandate to develop new types.”
He said public breeders, those working with USDA and agricultural experiment stations, can afford to “make mistakes. We have the freedom to do it and still stay in business.”
Jeff Klingenberg, a cotton breeder at the Bayer FiberMax research facility at Sellers, S.C., said his work includes both traditional genetic breeding and gene transfer.
“We're selecting for stress-resistant plants,” he said. “We have fields with low fertility levels, weed and nematode infestations and variable weather patterns.”
Klingenberg said variety development focuses on preliminary strains and early generations for early, mid and full-season varieties.
Phil Bauer, a cotton breeder at the USDA research center in Florence, S.C., is looking at varietal differences in water uptake.
“We've learned that we need to understand better how plants take up moisture,” he said, “and how that affects yield and quality.”
The test evaluates daily water use for each variety.
Bauer said latest studies showed that the two varieties in the test took up no moisture below 20 inches deep in the soil profile. “That was a surprise,” he said. “We're not sure why the plants are not rooting deeper. We will evaluate soil chemistry.”
Todd Campbell said the USDA cotton breeding program also looks at varieties under irrigation and drought conditions to determine if germplasm differs in yield and fiber quality with irrigation.
“If so, we will identify lines with improved response to irrigation and then identify the genes responsible.”
Dawn Fraser, a Delta and Pine Land plant breeder in Hartsville, S.C., hosted the tour at the Coker Foundation, where much of current cotton genetics originated.
“We focus on early-season varieties here,” Frazer said.
She tests preliminary lines at Hartsville. “We test advanced materials at other sites. We're in something of a transitional zone here. Some (Southeast) research locations need earlier varieties and others need later ones.”
She says the South Carolina location provides a challenging test for new plant material.
“In the last five years, we have not had two seasons alike,” she said. “We also have a lot of variability in soil fertility and the environment. It's very humid, so it's not a good location for seed development. Consequently, we also grow seed in Arizona.”
Fraser said the D&PL goal at Hartsville is to develop high-quality cotton varieties for the Southeast.
“With the conditions we have here, we are able to identify good materials. That's why Coker established its program here years ago.”
Tour participants looked at North Carolina State University breeding work at Rocky Mount, N.C.
Other stops included variety and quality trials, nematode studies and yield stability research at the University of Georgia's Tifton research center.