Cotton breeding is like steering a battleship, according to David Guthrie, technical services manager for Emergent Genetics, which produces cotton varieties under the Stoneville brand. Indeed, instant maneuverability is not a luxury for cotton breeders, and success hinges on an ability to quickly identify often blurry specks on the horizon.

And tricky currents can suddenly throw a wrench in the rudder. For example, there has been a shift in U.S. raw cotton use — going from a predominately domestic market to one where two-thirds of raw cotton is exported. A big reason — a free trade agreement that opened doors for U.S. raw cotton to China’s textile mills in exchange for Chinese access to U.S. apparel markets.

This new market has higher demands for fiber quality, even though the goods produced are essentially the same goods that were produced by our domestic textile mills and sold to the same consumers. We could spend months trying to figure out why quality standards changed when the end product stayed the same, but we might as well skip to the bottom line — we face a new dynamic for the marketing of cotton.

Basically, the world needs all qualities of cotton, but most years, high-quality cotton will move, often at a premium, while lower-quality cotton has a tendency to sit, since the market usually expects an ample supply. An analyst at a cotton meeting said it succinctly: “High quality cotton moves on demand. Lower quality cotton moves on price.”

To make sure your cotton moves on demand is not simply a matter of raising high-quality cotton. It’s knowing your end users’ market and doing a better job of targeting that market, whether it’s high quality, medium quality or low quality. Whatever the quality standard, growers must do a good job of preserving the quality they have. And, of course, yield is always a big consideration to the producer.

The challenge for U.S. cotton seed companies is to provide cotton producers with the qualities they need to compete in the market and couple that with high yield. Breeders have accomplished this with cottons now on the market and are now releasing the first wave of high-quality cottons with outstanding yield.

Once a set of varietal traits is selected, it takes about five years for breeders to place a variety with those traits in the marketplace.

So what are the new standards of yield and quality?

“Emergent Genetics has invested a significant amount of time in finding out what our mill customers are interested in,” Guthrie says. “In addition to our internal investigations, we’ve asked a lot of outside experts what they believe are the fiber quality parameters that we as a cotton seed company need to have.”

According to Guthrie, in the near term, Emergent Genetics is looking for the following qualities for its Stoneville brand: 35 staple or better; mike, below 4.8; strength, better than 29 with a minimum of 26; uniformity 82-83 percent; and color, leaf, 41-3.

Longer-range breeding targets are 36 staple or better, although Emergent Genetics may advance a variety with 35 staple or higher. “Micronaire is more environmentally dependent than staple or strength, but we would like to have a variety that averages 4.2 or below,” Guthrie said. “We want to see a strength of 33, with a minimum of 30. Uniformity is still 82-84 percent.”

According to David Albers, Delta and Pine Land’s technical service director for the southwest and west United States, the minimum quality for the high-quality markets is: 35-36 staple; 30-plus strength; micronaire of 4.6 or less; and a uniformity of 81-83 percent.

While quality is the new buzzword, seed companies are still very aware of what drives grower decisions. “Growers need to plant the varieties that give them the best overall return,” Albers said. “We shouldn’t lose perspective that there is a use for every type quality out there. A grower might plant a high-quality variety because it’s the vogue thing to do, without really looking at the tradeoff with a higher-yielding moderate- to good-quality cotton, at base or higher.”

Fiber quality is somewhat of a moving target, too. At an Engineered Fiber Selection Conference a few years ago, a mill representative told his audience that his mill preferred PM 1218 BG/RR because it has less short fiber content. The mill was not concerned about the variety’s tendency toward high micronaire or short (average) staple.

Albers points out that preserving quality is just as important as selecting varieties for fiber quality. “It’s more than just planting long staple, high strength cotton. It’s ginning it so that you don’t hurt the fiber. In the West, it’s encouraging the entire farming community to do the pest management to insure that you don’t have sticky cotton. It’s timely defoliation.”

Albers added that many foreign mills buy cotton “based on the reputation of an area or of a gin. It can take a long time to establish that kind of reputation, but not so long to lose it.”

When asked about fiber quality, Arkansas cotton producer Joe Whittenton says he is aware of the quality issue, but is more concerned with not getting discounts, rather than selecting varieties with premium level quality.

“At this point, it’s important to not get any deducts, because you’re not getting paid much for the premiums. But to answer the question, yes, I’d love to have a 36 staple with a 30 strength and a 4.2 mike. Then (the mills) come to you wanting your cotton.”

“Yield generates profit,” added Arkansas Extension cotton specialist Bill Robertson. “There’s a lot of talk about fiber quality and fiber quality is important, but yield is the deciding factor.”

While the challenge for Stoneville and Delta and Pine Land is to make high-yielding cottons with better quality, FiberMax varieties from Bayer CropScience have set a standard for fiber quality in seven years of existence.

The company takes a fiber-quality-first approach that’s won some marketshare. “If we have a blockbuster variety and it doesn’t meet specific quality measurements, we would debate very aggressively whether we would release it,” said Lee Rivenbark, FiberMax sales manager. “So we have a little different strategy. But the big advantage for us is fiber, not just length, strength and mike, but length uniformity, which is related to short fiber content.”

Rivenbark says that FiberMax “is a leader in yield and quality in Texas” and is closing the gap on yield in the Mid-South. “I think when you look at the official variety trials at the end of the year (you’ll see) FM 960 BR is yielding with anything out there.

“In the Southeast, some hurricanes came up through Georgia. We have some good stormproof varieties and right now, indications are that our Liberty Link variety FM 966 LL looks as good as anything out there.”

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com