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California cotton absent from debate on yields, quality

Scapegoats were plentiful at this year's Beltwide Cotton Production Conferences in Anaheim, Calif., as the industry wrestled with declining yields and deteriorating quality in 85 percent of the U.S. cotton crop.

Conspicuous by its absence in the contentious debate was California's San Joaquin Valley cotton, which Memphis, Tenn., cotton merchant William B. Dunavant Jr. called one of the few "bright spots" where quality and yield have not suffered as they have in virtually every other area of the U.S. Cotton Belt.

One reason for that, according to Steve Oakley, vice president and director of research for California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors (CPCSD), Shafter, Calif., has been the quality target SJV breeders have had to shot at for more than five decades.

Oakley, who has been with the seed distributors since 1988, said the San Joaquin Valley's "one-variety" law has always put a premium on quality. "Breeders have been forced to look for quality traits to get cottons approved" for planting in the six-county, Southern SJV one quality cotton district.

That is true for Acala varieties. In the past three seasons, however, non-Acalas have been permitted in the valley, marketed as California Uplands. However, there are no statutory quality standards on these cottons.

Although quality has been a major benchmark for the Acalas, Oakley said it has not come at the expense of yield. "When I first started in the valley, I recall former (CPCSD) Fresno County director Jack Cardwell telling me the three most important traits to breed for were yield, yield and yield," Oakley said.

"There is no other way than to breed for yield and quality," said Oakley, adding that breeding for both simultaneously is more complicated but not impossible.

Improvement backbone Oakley added, "conventional breeding remains the backbone of variety improvement."

One of the contentions from growers and textile mills is that cotton quality and yields have suffered in the rush to bring insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant transgenic cottons to market.

New Mexico State University cotton breeder Roy Cantrell agrees: "We are now germplasm engineers and no longer plant breeders," he said.

Cantrell joined Oakley and others on a cotton variety improvement panel. Representing growers was Jack Hamilton, of Lake Providence, La., who said major chemical companies now own most of the major U.S. cotton breeding companies. "Chemical companies are not cotton breeders," said Hamilton, who called for a re-generation of public breeding programs to reverse the decline in yield and quality.

Growers have turned to Cotton Incorporated to spearhead that effort. Corcoran, Calif., cotton producer Jim Hansen, CI's board chairman, said the research and promotion arm of the cotton industry is investigating that.

For six months CI has been looking into supporting public variety breeding, and Hansen hopes to have programs for review at CI's annual February meeting.

While much of the blame for the lint quality decline was laid at the feet of seed companies at Beltwide, other factors were, including environmental conditions that have been poor over the past few years. One consultant suggested that today's low cotton prices are forcing growers to trim production inputs, affecting quality. Still others contend transgenics are to "blame" because the early transgenic cottons came from back crosses of low-quality or low-yielding cottons. In the haste to get transgenics to market quickly, quality has suffered.

Regardless, the biggest bulls-eye was painted on the back of seed companies at Beltwide, and wielding the biggest paint brush was Stephen Felker, chairman and chief executive officer of Avondale Mills, Monroe, Ga.

Avondale uses almost a million bales of U.S. cotton annually. Domestic mills are a 10-million-bale market for American producers, and the decline in quality is threatening that market, Felker said. "Something is devaluing the quality of your fiber, and it could not happen at a worse time" because of increasing world competition. This decline is being exasperated by higher speed spinning equipment that demands better quality.

Blames transgenics Felker acknowledged that weather "is always an issue" in cotton quality, but he is convinced the move to transgenic cottons is largely to blame.

About 12 percent of world cotton is now planted to gene modified varieties. The International Cotton Advisory Council predicts that will reach 50 percent within five to seven years.

The mills are beginning to evaluate cotton varieties from the field to the new high speed spinning equipment, according to Felker. This will be focused on the Mid-South, Texas and the Southeast. California will not be included.

Asked after his presentation why California was not included, Felker said "90 percent of California cotton is exported" and also too expensive for domestic mill use.

Felker described Avondale as textile "tonnage manufactures" and cannot afford the premium California SJV cotton.

"The only time we use SJV cotton is to `sweeten up' runs," he said. This means a few SJV bales are added to a mixture of cottons from elsewhere to improve the overall spinning performance of a large number of non-California bales.

Felker was unaware of the non-Acalas now being produced in the San Joaquin. "My buyer may be aware, but I am not."

Asked if Avondale would buy these non-Acalas to replace similar Mid-South or Southeast styles, even at a two- to three-cent-per-pound premium over those styles, Felker said, "I would think there would be a very good market potential for those kinds of cottons in domestic mills," he said.

However, lint premiums are only part of the picture. Kelly Burkholder, vice president for Queensland/Anderson Clayton in Fresno, Calif., said a three-cent premium over Mid-South cotton would double with freight charges from the West to East Coast.

Felker continually harped on the need to improve cotton quality to meet the needs of increasingly faster spinning equipment.

While he said mills would "reward for awhile" improved lint quality like they have in the past Deltapine Acala 90 and Fibermax varieties, it would not be a permanent reward. He said growers should strive for better quality to meet mill demands "just as a cost of doing business."

One of the biggest sources of conflict between producers and mills is that growers are not rewarded for improved quality, but are discounted for inferior quality like high micronaire and shorter staple.

Perhaps the strongest seed company defense was offered by Tom Kerby, vice president of technical services for Delta and Pine Land Co. and former University of California Extension cotton specialist.

"I have learned that perception is truth" when it comes to grower and mill complaints about lower lint quality and reduced yields, Kerby said.

No difference However, he displayed data from three years of private and public field testing which showed no difference between the transgenics and their parent lines.

"This data strongly indicated no difference in `fiber quality stability' of transgenic varieties when compared directly against their recurrent parents across environments that produced everything from inferior to superior fiber quality," Kerby said.

California was slow to jump on the transgenics bandwagon. The San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board refused to accept transgenic versions of approved SJV cotton. While they did allow large agronomic trials of herbicide-resistant varieties, they required seed companies to subject transgenics to the same three-year testing as non-transgenics, regardless of their background.

Because of this, last season was the first for commercial production of "approved" transgenic Acalas.

However, there are no restrictions on transgenic California uplands.

The debate did not end at Beltwide. If anything it widened and most assuredly will be on next year's Beltwide program in Atlanta. It remains to be seen if California will be dragged into the debate. It wasn't this year.

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