New conventional cotton varieties being developed by university breeders probably won’t replace huge chunks of biotech cotton acres any time soon, but if the excellent fiber characteristics of UA 48 are any evidence of what’s to come, they could turn a few heads.

Interest in public sector conventional varieties has grown in recent years, according to Kater Hake, vice president of agricultural research, Cotton Incorporated, especially with growers looking more closely at cost efficiency. “Conventional varieties are not going to take over or be more than a few percentage points of total acreage,” Hake said. “But growers want choices, and public sector varieties are a choice.”

University of Arkansas cotton breeder Fred Bourland, who developed UA 48, says a primary motivation to develop conventional cotton varieties has been resistant pigweed. “Producers are saying they’re having to use a conventional weed program anyway, so a conventional variety would help them reduce some of their technology fees. We’re not going to put biotech companies out of business, but we want growers to have some alternatives. The window may close quickly. But for now, we have one that is ready.”

UA 48, which will be available in 2011, “yields very well, particularly in the north Delta,” Bourland said. “Its fiber quality is off the scale. It’s very unusual to have that type of fiber quality and yield, plus it’s very early. We think we’ve made a breakthrough from that standpoint.”

Bourland said in a strip test in 2009, UA 48 had a staple length of 42, with length uniformity 2-3 percentage points above most varieties, while the strength “ran around 36-37 grams per tex. We’d like for the micronaire to be a little lower. But it’s right in there with most commercial varieties.”

The breeding effort is not limited to Bourland, director of the Northeast Research and Extension Center, Keiser, Ark. Other breeders working on conventional varieties include Jane Dever, Texas AgriLife, Wayne Smith, Texas A&M, Gerald Myers, LSU AgCenter, Ted Wallace, Mississippi State University and Peng Chee, University of Georgia.

Cotton Incorporated has provided funding for the efforts as well as fellowships for cotton breeders, “which has really given us a jump start,” said Bourland.

Hake said Cotton Incorporated is not only looking at HVI data on conventional candidates, but also “how well they spin into yarn, and then fabric.”

Hake noted that three Arkansas cotton varieties, including UA 48, “have higher yarn strength than competitive varieties. So we definitely can have very high quality with competitive yield.”

Under the initiative, public sector breeders also participate in a germplasm sharing network, “which is very important,” Bourland said. “It’s made a big difference in cotton breeding the last few years. Used to be, with all the patented transgenes, we were limited on what we could cross with. This public sector network is extremely vital for the exchange of materials.”

The conventional cotton breeding effort is part of “a long term effort in cooperation with various universities to create better cotton germplasm,” Hake said “Anything that we can do to improve cotton, particularly from a genetic standpoint, adds to the loan value of cotton.”

This includes improving stress tolerance in conventional cotton varieties, according to Hake. “It is a priority, especially in west Texas. A lot of damage occurs in west Texas due to pollen sensitivity. You’ll see that particularly in the seed counts of dryland cotton.”

Breeders are also “digging deeply into their bag of tricks” to isolate any useful characteristics in wild cotton, Hake said.

“We’re also looking at gene therapy for cotton,” Hake said. “This allows you to take cottons that normally don’t flower and force them to flower so we can access the genes out them and utilize them.”

Hake said that scientists are working on identifying markers to select for nematode resistance. “Right now, we have multiple traits for both reniform and root knot nematode resistance and the markers that go with them. The challenge for the breeders is that you have to combine four of them to get the equivalence of nematode control for Temik. Only after the loss of Temik has the effort become urgent. Fortunately, we have enough lead time to incorporate these traits.”

Scientists also believe they are closing in on a potential solution to cotton root rot which could be ready for the market in 2011 or 2012.

Hake says Cotton Incorporated is also focusing on expanding the value of cotton beyond its use as a fiber. Scientists are working on developing varieties without gossypol in the seed, “which would make cotton seed even more valuable for dairy cows. It gives us more flexibility in terms of feed.”

There is also a growing market in building materials made from cottonseed, including the use of cotton burs in conjunction with fungi to produce a biodegradable replacement for Styrofoam. “There is a furniture manufacturer already shipping its products in this environmentally friendly and biodegradable cotton.”