California's San Joaquin Valley cotton is ahead and behind the curve in the rapidly changing cotton breeding world, according to the man who heads agricultural research program at Cotton Incorporated.
Roy Cantrell, former cotton breeder and professor at New Mexico State University, said cotton breeders in California's San Joaquin Valley have been “extremely successful” in breeding high yielding, high quality Acala and Pima cotton varieties.
“There has not been an erosion in yield and quality in the West as we have seen in other regions of the Cotton Belt,” said Cantrell.
However, that enviable position will be challenged as the valley moves deeper into the biotechnology world. When the rest of the cotton belt plunged into biotechnology, especially with the biotechnology to ward off insects, yield and quality suffered, said Cantrell.
Cantrell does not believe that has to happen, but it requires a sharper focus on quality when moving into new technology.
To lead discussion
Cantrell will lead a discussion of these topics at the May 11 Pima Production in Visalia, Calif., when he talks about breeding cotton and moderates a panel of the leading cotton breeders in California.
On the panel will be:
Steve Oakley, director of research and chief breeder for California Planting Cottonseed Distributors.
Joel Mahill, applied cotton breeder, Phytogen Seed Co.
Jim Olvey, Olvey and Associates, longtime California and Arizona cotton breeder who developed many of the SJV Acala and Pima cottons marketed by Delta and Pine Land Co.
Mauricio Ulloa, Research Geneticist, USDA-ARS Shafter Research and Extension Center, Shafter, Calif.
Cantrell is very familiar with SJV-style cotton having developed Acala cottons while at New Mexico State for 11 years.
He joined CI in the fall of 2001. His CI responsibilities cover all aspects of ag research, but when he joined CI the grower-funded organization was beginning to ramp up with an aggressive effort to improve cotton germplasm to advance quality and yield. He directed the launch of that effort.
CI initiated the program partly because growers became concerned that quality and yield were suffering at the expense of biotechnology and that the germplasm base had eroded due to a lack of support for public breeding efforts.
“Everything is on track with the germplasm development program,” said Cantrell. “We are developing high quality germplasm that yields well and are getting them out to the private breeders as quickly as we can.”
When the discussion about lower fiber quality and yields surfaced at the Beltwide Cotton Conference several years ago, Western cotton especially that produced in the San Joaquin Valley was clearly excluded from the quality debate because there had been no erosion in the West.
However, things are changing even for the best.
“California is facing stiff competition in the future from synthetics as well as cottons grown in other places,” said Cantrell. “California cannot continue to stay where it is at now. It must improve fiber and yields.”
Cantrell believes California cotton breeders are up to the task. Cantrell adds that the efforts of the breeders to improve cotton have been enhanced by the work of Western agronomists and others to maximize the genetic potential of improving cottons.
A big challenge facing Western cotton breeders is biotechnology, which is just now gaining a strong foothold in the West. It is expected to grow with the new herbicide technology as well as insect control technology that may be better adapted to the West than the old Bt-technology was.
“California is facing the challenge the rest of the U.S. Cotton Belt faced in the ‘90s,” said Cantrell.
The challenge is to put new technology into better varieties.
“It is another ball for breeders to juggle, and it is easy to step backward if you are not careful,” said Cantrell.
Biotechnology has proven to be a powerful cost-savings tool for producers, who demand it.
No setback in yield and quality is acceptable, but improvement is even more critical today as the U.S. cotton industry becomes more dependent on export sales for survival.
Quality a must
“We cannot afford to have happen what happened in the 90s. We had the domestic industry to use that cotton, but today there is basically only an export market that demands higher quality cotton than is sold to domestic mills,” said Cantrell.
“You cannot grow cotton cheap enough to sell it at discounts faced in overseas markets. It if does not have the quality, you would have to produce six bales to make it pay,” he said.
The emerging second biotechnology generation will not be the final generation, and the challenge to improve quality and yield quality while giving growers new technology will never cease, said Cantrell.
There is a registration form on Page 8 for the free Pima Production Summit. Also, registration is available online at www.westernfarmpress.com 
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