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Scientist/farmer says...

Plant breeders should focus on yields It doesn't matter if cotton is $5 per pound if you don't have any to sell. And, it doesn't matter if cotton is 5 cents per pound if you've got enough of it. That cotton marketing philosophy was passed down from Arkansas cotton farmer Garfield Lewis to his son, Hal Lewis.

Lewis, a biochemical geneticist, plant breeder and cotton farmer in Doddridge, Ark., says, "The most important fiber property cotton can have is yield and right now yield trend-lines in the Mid-South are declining."

The problem is that there are not many truly new varieties being released. "They are just old varieties that have new genes stuck in them," according to Lewis, who spoke at the LSU AgCenter's Cotton Fiber Quality Seminar in Rayville, La., this summer.

He says several factors contribute to the inability of Mid-South cotton yields to increase past current regional averages. However, he holds out hope for a resurgence in public breeding programs, which he believes are needed in order for cotton yields to begin trending upwards once again.

According to Lewis, Mid-South cotton yield trends were down in the 1960s and then they rebounded in the period between 1970 and 1985. Then, after declining again, cotton yields in the region have been trending negatively since the mid-1990s, he says.

These cotton yield trend-lines are correlated by Lewis to changes made in government policy in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1970, Congress passed the Plant Variety Protection Act. Under this act, business could receive patent protection for cloned plants, but not for sexually reproduced plants. Then, in the early to mid-1980s, government regulations changed again, so that a sexually reproduced plant could be patented. "When the regulations changed, resources were diverted from variety development into figuring out how to patent agricultural variety lines," Lewis says.

"What we need to be doing is addressing these yield down-trend problems," he says. "The varieties we're growing today have a problem and that's that they are more susceptible to stress." This, he says, is partly because the varieties currently available commercially are bred to produce more seed, instead of more lint.

"The part that is really worth some money is the fiber that's on that seed, not the seed itself." In fact, he says, it takes a cotton plant twice the energy to produce seed as it does to produce fiber. Therefore, the more energy going into producing additional cottonseed, the less energy is available to produce cotton lint yield.

A cotton producer's harvestable cotton yield, Lewis says, is equal to the number of cottonseeds produced per acre multiplied by the weight of the fiber per seed. This, he says, is a very important genetic characteristic that needs to be recognized because cottonseed is a very high energy entity.

The fiber weight per seed of current cotton varieties is substantially less than those cotton varieties grown just a few years ago. For example, varieties such as Stoneville 213 and Deltapine 16 produced 70 to 80 milligrams of fiber per seed. In comparison, most current varieties available commercially to Mid-South growers produce only 50 to 60 milligrams of fiber per seed, according to Lewis.

To further illustrate his point, Lewis notes that some of the varieties grown in the San Joaquin Valley of California, such as Acala Maxxa, produce twice as many fibers per seed as those varieties bred for the Mid-South region.

"If you want me, as a cotton producer, to do something to my cotton crop, you need to talk money. If you're not talking money, I'm not going to listen to what you want me to do," a point Lewis says cotton-breeding businesses need to understand.

He says you have to breed yield and quality together because they are integral to each other. To illustrate this, Lewis says micronaire has been going up in the last 10 years and fiber length and fiber strength are decreasing.

"The varieties we are growing in the Mid-South do have tremendous yield potential if you have perfect weather throughout the growing season. The problem is that it's not often we have the ideal weather conditions these varieties need to produce a high-yielding crop," Lewis says.

"We've got to have some source of better genetics and who's better than we producers who are responsible for our own well-being. We cannot assume private seed companies are going to do exactly what's best for us," he says. "We must take responsibility so our interests are looked after. The best way to do that is to have a good public breeding program."

"You cannot wait for the future. You've got to do it yourself. We need to revitalize the public breeding program that has gone by the wayside," Lewis says.

U.S. GOVERNMENT support for the farm sector is frequently linked by advocates of farm program payments to survival of rural communities. Farm program payments are a small fraction of what the federal government spends in rural areas. In 1998, per capita federal spending in nonmetro counties totaled $4,725, including only $182 for farm payments. Nevertheless, government payments may play a significant role in some local economies, particularly the 556 nonmetro counties identified as farm-dependent because of the importance of farm income there.

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