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Future of cotton production may require an attitude adjustment

The future of cotton production may require attitude adjustments. Cotton breeders are concentrating efforts on developing higher yielding, higher quality cottonseed varieties, many of which will be genetically enhanced to deliver desirable output traits for farmers, mills and consumers.

That effort alone may not be enough to maintain the profitability of the cotton industry, according to Dan Krieg, a cotton farmer, and plant physiologist and economist with Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Krieg, who was among a group of cotton breeders participating in a panel discussion at the 2002 Beltwide Cotton Conference in Atlanta, says, “The cotton industry must unite to protect and maintain some semblance of prosperity if we are going to keep the economy of the southern states in tact.”

What is needed, he says, is to “change some attitudes.”

Krieg challenges breeders to begin variety improvements by changing the attitude of the cotton plant. “The cotton plant is a woody perennial with an indeterminate growth habit, which doesn't have to produce seed to survive. So any little anomaly in the environment causes it to do things that allow it to survive as a plant, but that are detrimental to lint productivity. Often, the cotton plant either quits producing fruiting sites or aborts existing fruit, making it extremely difficult to manage.”

“During the past 20 years we have put a tremendous amount of emphasis on biotechnology and the delivery of this technology to producers. But in most cases, it's been to the detriment of the other variety development disciplines, because resources are limited. There weren't additional dollars that went with the focus on biotechnology,” he says.

The most efficient path from genes to jeans, according to Krieg, will require an integrated program with both public and private entities working as one.

“If we are going to make this industry profitable, and maintain the effort and support needed, we're going to have to quit functioning as individuals and bring the whole system together,” he says. “This type of integrated approach is long overdue. We've talked about it for 25 years, and while there is very little evidence it is in existence now, it needs to be if this industry is going to survive.”

Roy Cantrell with Cotton Incorporated in Raleigh, admits that there is a “severe deficiency” in germplasm and population development, particularly in the public sector. That's why Cotton Incorporated is coordinating an early generation germplasm testing program. The initiative aims to accelerate the development and enhancement of germplasm with an emphasis on genetically enhanced output traits.

What Cotton Incorporated is trying to do, Cantrell says, is to expand and enhance cottonseed development. “Cotton Incorporated is not interested in becoming a seed company,” he says.

Another concern among farmers when it comes to variety development, Krieg says, is the cost associated with these new, improved cottonseed varieties.

“As a farmer, I'm particularly concerned with the rising cost of inputs, and as we add these new traits, there's no question the cost of that seed is going to go up. In the High Plains in Texas, seed has gone from a no-cost budget line item just five to 10 years ago to what is now a very significant cost,” he says. “The more we add to cottonseed the greater the cost is going to be. And with 35-cent cotton, it's hard to keep adding costs. I can't tell you where it is going to stop, but I can tell you that as we keep adding traits, cottonseed is going to get more expensive.”

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