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Hedge bets with diversity of varieties

A few years ago, after just one growing season of Extension testing data, a certain cotton variety topped yield tests in both Missouri and Arkansas. It was the new hot variety and many farmers wanted it blanketing their fields. The variety's lack of history stopped very few farmers from coveting it.

“Look, it's human nature to want to hit a home run,” says Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. Continuing with the baseball analogy, Robertson says the problem is homerun hitters “tend to strike out a whole bunch. So when this hot variety came available, a lot of farmers stepped up to bat wanting to be Sammy Sosa. Way too many acres of that variety made it into Mid-South soils.”

Robertson says the variety limped to a base hit. There was no home run.

Right now, many of those reading this are wondering what variety started out with such promise and ended with such mediocrity. Robertson says that isn't the point. Instead, he says, farmers should have learned not to plant their acreage wall-to-wall in one variety. However, if reports about the numbers of acres planted in Paymaster 1218 are accurate, it appears many didn't.

“This year, I'm hearing a lot of the same comments on Paymaster 1218. Growers are saying that last year 1218 yielded very well and was some of the best cotton on the farm. This year, I've talked to farmers who have many varieties planted. 1218 is at the head of their list — but it's the head of the bad list.

“I'm also hearing heavy discounts on 1218 are coming out of the classing offices. I don't know if we've harvested enough acres yet to be comfortable in saying something absolute. But the signs are certainly discouraging thus far,” says Robertson.

What about diversity? Is there a formula Robertson uses in bringing new varieties to a farm?

“There's no set rule. But I try to plant about 65 percent of my acres in varieties that are proven on my farm. I want the majority of my land in cotton that I know how to manage, that I'm comfortable with and that I know will do well.”

Robertson limits brand-new varieties to 10 percent of his acreage. Of the varieties that make the grade at 10 percent, he'll expand to 25 percent of his acres the second year.

“I'd never plant a new variety — even one that's touted as the hottest thing ever — on more than 10 percent of my land. And most of the time, that 10 percent is divided up into many new varieties — usually five to seven varieties.”

John Barnett, Louisiana Extension cotton specialist, agrees with Robertson's slow, cautious approach.

“I've repeatedly recommended that farmers not plant an entire operation — or even close to an entire operation — in the same variety. I believe you should always plant a minimum of three or four varieties for a number of reasons,” says Barnett.

Among the reasons are different varieties react differently to climatic conditions and you also want to space harvest out. Another thing is variety performance often hinges on soil type. Barnett says farmers should pay close attention to what research station work shows.

“Last year, the problems with planting heavy in just one variety were very evident. Farmers who planted entire farms in a single variety often found they had poor crops while across the turn row, their neighbors had different varieties that looked great. That led to some irate farmers. The moral of the story is to not put all your eggs in one basket. Fit your varieties to soil type and then plant three or four different one across the operation.”

Barnett doesn't have any written suggested guidelines about planting percentages of one variety. “My rule of thumb is to never plant over half an operation in one variety.”

There is tremendous pressure on seed companies to produce high-yielding varieties. In doing so, those companies also warn against going too heavily with one variety, says Tom Kerby, Delta and Pineland vice president for technical services.

“Do we have a responsibility to not put a high-yielding variety on the market that farmers want to plant? Well, we're supposed to provide options and information to customers that help farmers make decisions. We've built a staff of high-quality agronomists to assist with that.

“I've seen many growers who have given us their classing numbers and gin sheets on 1218 and another DPL variety of higher fiber quality. We looked at those numbers and realized the farmer had made more money with 1218. Even though they didn't get the same price per pound, because of the high yield they made more.”

So what is the producer expected to do? The producer is expected to grow whatever will give him the most revenue at the end of the day, says Kerby.

“It's true that he'd love to have high yields without fiber quality questions but the bottom line is actually healthier by planting 1218. With the things we've been through in the last three years with some fiber-quality issues that were probably truly environmental cropped up. Still, I say growers will plant what gives them the most return,” says Kerby.

Kerby believes there should be diversity and there are many ways to get it.

“You don't get it by saying you'll plant some 1218 and some other varieties of the same maturity. If you planted 1218, Suregrow 501 BR (which isn't as high-yielding as 1218, but has a heck of a lot better fiber) and one other, then you'll be closer to what diversity means. You want two or three varieties in your lineup. That way if it's a 1218 kind of year, you're covered. If it's a year conducive to bronze wilt, you've planted a variety that isn't affected by that malady.”

But freedom is a great thing. Specialists and researchers can encourage diversity all day long. When it comes right down to it, though, farmers will do what they want, says Kerby. “We can't stand there when they're making out a seed order and demand they plant certain varieties.”

When Kerby saw the numbers coming in for 1218 seed orders was he worried?

“My reaction was one of caution. When I think of 1218, the first thing that comes to mind is bronze wilt. If you have the environment for bronze wilt, it can hurt your yield badly. Secondly, I had some thoughts about influencing average fiber quality. 1218 is on the lower end and if a huge portion of the region is planted in that variety it'll cause people to think that trends and issues of fiber quality that have been bandied about for the last few years are continuing. That really worries me, actually.”

Kerby says he's preparing a paper on this that says some of the trends seen in fiber quality over the last six years are associated with varieties planted. Environment still plays a larger part, but there's some data suggesting part of the problem lies with variety choices, he says.

Five years ago, farmers were producing better fiber but weren't getting yields as high as today's most popular varieties.

“The yield change has more than offset the quality discounts. The bottom line, again, is that growers are making more money,” says Kerby.

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