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Revitalized ARS cotton research team at Shafter

Geneticist Mauricio Ulloa heads a new USDA-Agricultural Research Service Acala and Pima breeding program at the Shafter station with 500 lines from sources in the U.S. as well as Mexico in his program. It is the first on the station since USDA "privatized" its long standing breeding program in the mid-1970s and turned over germplasm to private breeders.

Ulloa’s more promising lines will move into variety trials next year in the valley in efforts to develop new basic material for use by all cotton breeders to improve yields and quality and enhance disease resistance.

Ulloa is a member of a rejuvenated ARS research effort at Shafter. The new thrust is headed by four scientists who have moved to the station over the past three years as members of the Western Integrated Cropping Systems Research team, focusing on insect control, remote sensing and Ulloa’s cotton enhancement program.

The timing could not be better just as it was in 1922 when the Shafter station was established to serve the fledging SJV Acala cotton industry.

Shafter is the birthplace of what is the envy of the U.S. Cotton Belt. It was from USDA and University of California research emanating from Shafter that San Joaquin Valley evolved into a world-renown premium quality cotton producing area that today continues to command a fiber premium over other upland cotton.

Pima benefits

However, SJV Acala cotton has fallen on hard times recently. Valley Acala acreage is about a third of what it once was. Low prices and rising costs have forced farmers to switch to other crops. Fortunately, one of those other crops has been Pima cotton. In the past decade Pima acreage has increased dramatically and next season could account for more than a third of the valley’s total cotton acreage. Work by the ARS team at Shafter will also benefit valley Pima production.

The Shafter station almost closed its doors in the early 1990s when USDA operated the station. The federal agency wanted to move its scientists to new federal facilities at the UC Kearney Ag center at Parlier, Calif. However, California producers lobbied to keep the station open and ARS scientists there, generating funds to operate the station from the California Crop Improvement Association assessments, Cotton Incorporated state-support research funds and the University of California, which agreed to take over operation of the station.

The buildings and land are owned by Kern County, which also has been cooperative in keeping the historical station operating. U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas also has played a key role in maintaining a USDA presence at Shafter, said Starrh.

Marsh, McGuire

"Brian Marsh is doing a great job managing the station and Mickey McGuire has put together a great team of ARS scientists to deal with the challenges we are facing in the valley," said Fred Starrh, Shafter, Calif., cotton producer who was one of the leaders in keeping the station open and rejuvenating its research effort.

Marsh is the UC Cooperative Extension Kern County cotton farm advisor based at the station where he also serves as superintendent.

McGuire, an insect pathologist, is team leader of the ARS scientists and has been at the station for three years.

"If we are to continue to grow cotton in the San Joaquin Valley we need improved pest management technology, and of course higher yields and better quality. These things take time, but I am optimistic that the people in place at Shafter can help the next generation of valley cotton farmers," Starrh said. Insect control costs continue to rise in the valley, primarily from pests like lygus, whiteflies and aphids.

Lygus, aphids control

Controlling lygus and aphids using pathogens is McGuire’s focus.

McGuire has identified fungus in the valley that control lygus naturally. "We have identified 300 isolates from the valley that impact lygus populations," said McGuire. He is now in the process of identifying two to three of the more effective strains to move into field testing.

"For 10 years pathogens have played a key role in limiting lygus populations in alfalfa in the northeast, and there already is a product commercially available called Mycotrol," said McGuire.

It works well in the lab on California’s primary lygus strain, but has not been effective commercially.

McGuire said some of his new isolates are 100 times more lethal than the commercial product.

"What we are looking for are isolates that will kill at lower dosages and grow in hotter temperatures than the commercially available strain. When we identify them we will take it to the company that makes Mycotrol," he said.

McGuire is collaborating with scientists in Mississippi who are also working on controlling a closely related lygus strain they have there with pathogens.

Cotton trees

The renewal of the cotton breeding program at Shafter is almost a flashback. Ulloa has acquired Acala, upland and Pima germplasm from Texas A&M. New Mexico State University, USDA-ARS and other traditional sources, but he has made several trips to Mexico collecting exotic germplasm from perennial cotton trees growing in the wild.

It was Mexico were the early day USDA scientists collected plants that would eventually become the famous Acala cotton.

"There are cotton trees growing in Mexico with open bolls from November through July. The people gather the cotton and use it for mattresses and other things in their homes," said Ulloa.

Ulloa is no stranger to cotton. He worked at the USDA station in Stoneville, Miss., before moving to Shafter. He received his doctorate from New Mexico State University where he worked with Roy Cantrell, who now heads up Cotton Incorporated cotton breeding effort. CI established the breeding effort in response to grower concerns about a dwindling cotton genetic base.

The last USDA-ARS breeder at Shafter before Ulloa started his work was H.B. Cooper, who also received his doctorate at New Mexico State. Cooper developed the SJ cotton varieties.

Ulloa’s goal is not much different than Cooper’s in improving quality and resistance to diseases like verticillium wilt and bacterial blight.

"We are also looking for resistance to fusarium wilt," said Ulloa. Fusarium is causing increasing concern in the valley with several fields have been identified as infected with fusarium.

Check Pima strains

"We are also looking for heat tolerance," he said.

Unlike his predecessors, Ulloa is also evaluating Pima strains. "There are some Pima strains from New Mexico State that look like they could have tremendous potential for California," he added.

Ulloa has more tools to work with than his predecessor with the emerging DNA technology to enhance traditional breeding techniques.

Another member of the team, John Ojala, is involved in emerging precision agriculture technology, using aerial remote sensing to identify crop stresses such as nitrogen and irrigation needs.

The newest member of the ARS team at Shafter is ecologist Jay Bancroft, who is researching the in-field movement of lygus, silverleaf whitefly, cotton aphid, thrips and spider mites and their natural enemies

"It has been exciting coming here and being involved in putting together a team of young, highly motivated scientists," said McGuire. "We have had a lot of input from growers as to what their needs are, and we are working to meet those challenges."

McGuire had high praise for the USDA-ARS support staff on the station.

"Some of us are new to cotton and we have had to depend on a lot of people to get up to speed. The cooperative effort we have received from the University of California, California Department of Food and Agriculture and others has been wonderful. You do not see that kind of support and cooperative spirit everywhere, and we appreciate it very much here at Shafter," said McGuire.

"I think we are really back on track at Shafter," said Starrh.

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