While cotton producers across the United States filled planter hopper boxes with enough cotton seed to cover 12 million acres this year, few thought about the generations of plant breeders who worked in fields and greenhouses to develop varieties that now produce both the high yields and fiber qualities being demanded by today’s cotton supply chain customers.
For decades, producers wanted three things from a variety: yield, yield and yield. Yield paid the bills, and when cotton prices were forcing some to plant other crops, a high-yielding variety could be the difference between losing money and staying economically viable enough to farm the next season.
When Dr. Fred Bourland, one of the most respected classical cotton breeders in the country, was a graduate student at the University of Arkansas, his mentor, Dr. Brad Waddle, paid him a compliment he remembers still today.
“He told me I had a good eye for cotton,” said Bourland.
At that point in the profession, a good eye was about all any breeder had to evaluate thousands of breeding plots.
“Back then, cotton breeding was moving from being an art into being a science. Most things were very subjective,” said Bourland, who has since taught countless aspiring cotton breeders how to visually evaluate the many dynamics of a cotton plant’s development and its interaction with pests and the environment.
Cotton yields in the U.S. have been on an upward linear slope since 1987, when they stood at 600 pounds an acre. Although there were alternating years of highs and lows, dropping below 550 pounds in 1985 and almost reaching 900 pounds in 2011, cotton breeders have advanced the art and science of selecting and crossing germplasm leading to today’s elite cultivars.
“With planted acreage shifting from higher-yielding regions like the Mid-South to Texas, where dryland dominates and growing conditions are generally tougher, that national yield growth trend over the past 15 years becomes even more impressive,” said Jon Devine, senior economist, Corporate Strategy and Program Metrics, Cotton Incorporated.
Historically, breeders have targeted their selections toward traits to improve yields — often to the detriment of quality. While impressive strides have been made to reverse the negative relationship between yield and quality, it does still exist, although last year’s cotton crop was a banner year for quality, according to data shared by Cotton Incorporated’s Vikki Martin, director of Quality Research and Program Evaluation.
“Breeders have gotten so much better selecting lines for both yield and quality. They have expanded the size of their testing programs considerably over the last couple of decades, and because of advances in computer and software program technologies, breeders have propelled the scientific aspects of breeding forward tremendously,” says Dr. Don Jones, director of Breeding, Genetics and Biotechnology in the Agricultural and Environmental Research Division of Cotton Incorporated.
A great analogy to visualize what today’s breeders are trying to accomplish is to think of their germplasm selection process in terms of the various levels of basketball talent across the country. There are hundreds of thousands of young, aspiring basketball players, but each year only 5,355 are given the opportunity to play at the collegiate level. From that point, only around 500, or the elite, play in the NBA.
“Breeders aim to develop the elite, and that effort requires keeping a level of integrity on the performance of lines (players) under evaluation. When that can be done, you’re able to increase the probability of finding that elite ‘outlier’ or what scientists call ‘transgressive segregates’,” said Jones.
Data control and management
Dr. Roy Cantrell is a well-known and internationally-respected cotton breeder and geneticist. Growing up on a Texas cotton farm, earning his undergraduate degree in Crop Science from Texas Tech while working all four years in the sorghum breeding program at Cargill PAG, Cantrell caught the breeding bug early.
Because of their outstanding plant genetics and breeding program, Cantrell selected the University of Minnesota to earn his master’s and Ph.D. He took a job at North Dakota State as a conventional wheat breeder back in the “heyday” of what he called public sector “brute force” breeding, when all yield, quality and disease data was collected manually.
“Even going back to my graduate school days working in corn, obtaining, recording and evaluating data was both tedious and laborious,” said Cantrell, who remembers using a leather finger loop corn husking peg until his hands were raw, and then carrying the heavy sample bags to the end of the rows for weighing.
Breeding is all about the acquisition, evaluation (and limitation) of data. If yield pays the bill for producers, data pays the bill for cotton breeders — or at least leads to variety improvement, which is obviously their goal.
“When we were collecting yield, quality, and disease data early in my career, we needed a level of precision we just couldn’t get from the plot machines we were using. By the late 80s, we finally got plot combines that weighed yield automatically,” said Cantrell, who once worked on wheat breeding projects at counter season nurseries at CIMMYT (The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) in Mexico, where he often ate breakfast with Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug.
“My short time with him made an impact on me and my perspective about what advances in breeding and agronomics could do across the globe,” said Cantrell.
Filling a developing void
For the first 20 years of his professional career, Cantrell was in academia, but around 2001, he was approached by two Cotton Incorporated senior staff members — Drs. Preston Sasser and William Lalor.
Cantrell had been receiving Cotton Incorporated funding for various breeding projects through the years. While he initially didn’t want to leave the university world, he was intrigued with the opportunity to work with more segments throughout cotton’s extensive supply chain.
“I had worked with a few farmers through the years, but I had very little direct experience working on the textile, manufacturing, or retail side of the industry. The breadth of what Cotton Incorporated did and to what I would be exposed (the dirt-to-shirt aspect) really attracted me. We put our house in New Mexico on the market two days before 9/11 and moved to Cary,” remembers Cantrell.
Cantrell had recognized a steady decline in public breeding sector funding for all crops, but it had become especially acute in cotton. After meeting with board members like Dale Swinburn from Texas, Jay Hardwick from Louisiana and David Burns from North Carolina, it was decided that to elevate the level of cotton breeding programs across the country, they had to attract the best young minds in science.
“If you give me the option of just funding a breeding program or molding a young, bright student who is eager to learn, I’ll take the student every time,” said Cantrell.
The Cotton Incorporated Fellowship Program was created in 2002 and has been a phenomenal success. That success continues today under the direction of Dr. Don Jones, who reports that 40 CIF students have participated in the program to date.
Past CIF participants currently hold key positions in both public and private breeding programs across the country. From Dr. Joe Johnson, cotton breeder for Phytogen, and Dr. Nino Brown, cotton breeder for Bayer Crop Science, to Dr. Doug Hinchcliffe, research scientist, USDA-ARS in New Orleans, and Dr. Ed Lubbers, research professional, University of Georgia, each is working to develop varieties with improved yield and quality characteristics. Those improvements will not only benefit cotton producers, but will also bring value to cotton’s customers throughout the supply chain for decades into the future.