Arizona grower breeding program moving forward

Race horse bloodlines will tell you only so much. The track is the ultimate test.

Arizona cotton growers are ready to put their stable of new cotton varieties on the track to see if any — and they have a stable full — can beat the current competition.

Pinal County, Ariz., cotton producers Paul "Paco" Ollerton, C.L. "Bill" Scott and others believe the race now under way to develop new cotton varieties in a grower-financed breeding program may be a race for survival of the Arizona cotton industry.

Ollerton is immediate past chairman of the Arizona Cotton Research and Protection Council and now chairman of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association variety development committee. He succeeded Scott as chairman of the committee searching for new grower-developed cotton varieties.

Arizona cotton growers are moving into their fourth season of trying to develop cotton varieties they believe will be more suited for Arizona than what is now available from commercial seed companies.

Scott has been the leader in this effort for years. He and many of his peers believe commercial seed companies develop cotton varieties better suited for other parts of the U.S. Cotton Belt, but want Arizona producers to grow the varieties for planting seed because weather conditions are none better than in the Grand Canyon State.

‘Not taking care’

"Commercial cotton breeders are not taking care of us in Arizona. They only want Arizona for seed production and consider lint a byproduct," said Ollerton.

Arizona ranked second in average upland yield last year with 1,371 pounds of lint per acre, behind only California’s record upland average of 1,525 pounds in 2004.

Still Ollerton and Scott believe the cotton growers’ variety development program funded by a 25-cent per bale assessment can do better.

But that is only half the story. Scott says Arizona cotton quality must be improved, significantly and quickly.

"At one time I said that we could stay in the cotton business if we could produce tons of cotton," said Scott. "That is no longer the case. It is a changing world. We have to have quality for Arizona to stay in the cotton business."

Scott said Arizona cotton is now discounted up to 14 cents per pound on the world market.

The vast majority of Arizona cotton is exported to 3 markets, China India and Pakistan. Australians have taken the Indonesian markets away from Arizona growers. Plus, Fibermax from the Texas High Plains and Coastal Bend areas are also eroding away Arizona world cotton markets. Brazilian cotton is now competing directly with Arizona growths as well.

"We do not have a lot of marketing options left," said Scott.

While Arizona’s reputation for high micronaire cotton has hurt them, it is the lack of length and strength that are the real discounters, said Scott.

"We have a lot of exceptional long and high strength cotton in the 350 lines from the 2003 grower funded nursery, 1.20 and greater length and 30 grams per tex or stronger strength. We have some cottons approaching SJV quality," said Scott. "Quality is there. We now have to see if it will yield consistently. We acknowledge that it is difficult to get yield and quality off the same cotton bush, but we are determined to try."

Quality critical

"I can see the day when we may not be able to sell Arizona cotton at any price unless we improve the quality," said Ollerton. "I think we are on the road to achieving the quality we need to sell Arizona cotton."

And Ollerton and Scott said the grower-financed breeding program has plenty of high quality material in its breeding program that will feature 10 lines in advance screening this year at 3 locations in the state, Yuma, Stafford and Central Arizona. Plus there will be about 45 additional lines to be grown in preliminary tests at 2 locations.

"And we have some outstanding quality in the 350 lines we sent to Cotton Incorporated for HVI testing. All the lines came from the cotton growers 2003 nursery," which was basically the beginning point for the grower program.

"If we are to survive as cotton growers, we recognize we have to have yield," said Ollerton. "Not necessarily four bales, but we definitely must have quality. We may be able to open up niche markets for unique quality from Arizona."

"We cannot continue to be at the mercy of the commercial seed companies who keep changing varieties on us every few years," said Ollerton.

Scott said the grower-financed program there has generated "a heckuva lot of germplasm in a short period of time. Companies in business lot longer than we have do not have this much diversity in their program" said Scott.

Arizona growers have a total 2,400 different lines in their breeding effort after just four years.

Pinal/Pima counties University of Arizona Extension Agent Steve Husman is directing the growers’ program field trials. Scott and Ollerton also give credit to Cotton Incorporated’s Roy Cantrell and Don Jones for helping Arizona growers with testing and other elements of the breeding program as part of CI’s commitment to develop new cotton germplasm.

Credit also is given to Michael Gilbert, the former breeder for the program.

‘Lot of support’

"We have had a lot of support from a lot of people. Another of those was Arizona breeder Jim Olvey who helped us with some germplasm," said Ollerton.

The earliest growers can expect on-farm testing of promising varieties is 2007, said Ollerton. "We have 3 varieties coming back for a second year of testing this season, and we may have something for growers to try year after next. If they look good in ‘05, we can seed increase in ‘06 and maybe have a commercial variety by ‘08."

That would be the earliest and only if one of the promising lines now in the screening trials we have now do not collapse this season, added Ollerton.

Arizona growers were the first to grow transgenic cottons and Ollerton and Scott admit at some point they must be introduced in the growers breeding program.

"However, transgenics are not for everyone. Some people do not need them. Some growers want to keep the old non-transgenic lines we still have available and some are even saving their own seed. That is a wreck waiting to happen, but that is how serious people are about not having to plant transgenic cottons," said Scott.

It will be more expensive this season to plant trangenics with technology fees going up 25 to 30 percent, according to Ollerton. That is adding impetus to the development of an Arizona grower cotton.

"We are gong to have to offer genes in our cottons because that is what some consumers want, but if we can eradicate the pink bollworm as we think we can, that will reduce the need for Bt cotton, said Ollerton. Arizona cotton growers voted last year to fund a pink bollworm eradication effort, but it is being held up for lack of federal support money.

Wants state program

Scott makes no bones about his desire to have an Arizona breeding program patterned after the California grower run system. "I went to Australia several years ago. Their system is patterned after California and improved. They have gone from an average yield of one bale per acre to 3 bales in just 30 years. Their breeding program, selection and isolation process are like nothing else I have seen. They develop varieties and stick with them," said Scott.

As Arizona acreages goes down, many of the commercial seed companies have gone to California to grow planting seed.

"Let SJV have the seed business. Guys there are smarter than we are because they seem to get a lot more money for seed contracts than we do," said Ollerton. Contracts for up to $200 per acre are being offered for seed production in Central Arizona.

"Here all we get is a $45 per ton seed premium," said Ollerton.

Ollerton said the Arizona cotton industry could be considered a "dying industry. Fifteen to 18 years ago we had 800,000 acres of cotton in the state. Now we cannot muster 250,000," said Ollerton.

The producer admitted a growing dairy industry has taken cotton land for forage crops, but that, Ollerton said, does not account for acres of lost cotton production.

Housing has become a big land consumer in Arizona, taking 5,000 acres per year.

"Not all of the 500,000 acres of cotton we have lost has been to dairies and subdivisions," Ollerton. Cotton has lost acreage because yields have not increased and quality has not improved to improve cotton’s return with rising costs, he said.

‘Bring new life’

"I think as we evaluate where this program has come from in the past four years, it will bring new life and vitality for Arizona cotton," said Ollerton.

For Scott, the grower breeding program is a personal legacy. Scott grew his first Central Arizona cotton in 1957.

"I can honestly say I have never lost a dime growing cotton. I have lost a lot of money in other crops, but never cotton. I guess that is why I have a soft spot for it," he said.

However, for Scott to continue making money with cotton he believes new higher quality cottons must be developed.

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