“Triple Nickel” has to be one of the catchier nicknames to have come out of agricultural marketing circles in recent years.

Whether the nickname helped or not, Deltapine 555 BG/RR, as it is officially known, has caught on with growers because of its ability to produce a lot of cotton long after other varieties might have given up the ghost.

But, along with its reputation as the Timex “watch” of U.S. cotton, questions have also been raised about the Triple Nickel’s fiber quality and whether those issues might offset some of the benefit of 555’s phenomenal yield.

Some of those doubts may have subsided this year, particularly in Georgia where the perception of lower fiber quality in the 2003 crop has led to reports of textile mills refusing to take cotton from the region. Bale recaps from the 2004 crop show substantial quality improvement over 2003.

“We’ve been pleased with what we’ve seen this year,” says Steve Brown, Extension cotton specialist with the University of Georgia. “With four hurricanes bearing down on us this fall, we thought we might be in trouble.”

Despite the effects of the high wind and heavy rains from Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, 85 to 90 percent of the 2004 Georgia crop has graded 41 or better, according to Brown.

“Strength is as good or better than last year, and staple is better than the last several years,” said Brown. “On uniformity, we are toward the bottom of the list, but we’re equal to Arizona. All in all, our fiber quality is better than last year.”

Those numbers are important to farmers and to agronomists at Delta and Pine Land Co., because Deltapine 555 BG/RR was planted on almost 55 percent of Georgia’s cotton acreage in 2004, according to estimates by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“The overall quality of Georgia cotton is improved despite all the storms we had,” said Ken Lege, director of technical services for Delta and Pine Land’s eastern region. “The quality has been overwhelmingly favorable.”

Lege maintains that 555’s quality was never as poor as it has been made out to be, citing bale recap sheets from a number of Georgia gins showing that 555’s fiber quality was much improved over DP 458 B/RR, the variety it replaced, and on a par or better than competing varieties.

“There is no denying that variety selection plays a major role in determining all fiber quality traits; however there are many other management and environmental factors that affect fiber quality, many of which are poorly understood,” says Lege.

“The recent studies conducted by Dr. Phillips Roberts at the University of Georgia regarding the effects of stink bug injury on fiber quality are quite astounding. This is really the first set of data ever gathered that show this insect’s effects on fiber quality.”

Fiber quality information for the last two crops from a number of gins in Georgia and Florida shows what a difference a year can make.

At BCT Gin, a large, three-county gin operation in southwest Georgia, bale recaps from the gin’s Quitman County farms showed 555 produced higher strength and staple and lower micronaire than 458 in 2003. Uniformity was nearly equal for the two varieties.

“All told, the 19,000 bales of 555 that went through the gin received an average loan rate of 54 cents or a 2-cent premium compared to a loan rate of about 53 cents for DP 458 B/RR,” said Lege. “That’s on top of the significantly higher yields for 555 in 2003.”

The Southeastern Gin in Baxley, Ga., which ginned about 22,000 bales of 555, reported slightly higher staple and micronaire, but lower strength and almost equal uniformity compared to Deltapine 458 B/RR. Bales of 555 ginned at Baxley received an average of just below the base loan rate of 52 cents but about 50 points higher than 458.

The average discount of 42 points for the 22,000 bales of 555 at the Baxley gin was lower than the discounts of 100 to 250 points for competing varieties. But the discounts don’t tell the whole story, according to Lege.

“The total value 555 offers growers more than makes up for any deducts,” he notes. “That total value includes adequate fiber quality and proven 15 to 20 percent more lint yield plus better gin turnout than other commercial varieties.”

Why was 555’s fiber quality — and that of other varieties — better in 2004 than in 2003?

“We think there are two reasons,” says Brown. “One, growers did a lot better job of managing stink bugs in 2004, and, two, there was a shift in the mindset of our growers. They got in a bigger hurry to get the crop out.

“Saying that there has been a shift in mindset may sound funny with the four hurricanes we had, but our growers decided back in the summer that they wanted to get their crop out faster,” he said. “Many were still able to do that, despite the storms.”

Roberts’ fiber quality research, which was included in a presentation on stink bugs at Cotton Incorporated’s Crop Management Seminar in Robinsonville, Miss., shows that staple length, uniformity, strength, grade and micronaire all were improved when stink bugs were properly managed with insecticide applications.

“Fiber length and uniformity decreased as stink bug damage increased,” Roberts said of the study, which used tagged bolls in plots at the University of Georgia Experiment Station at Tifton.

“Stink bugs can feed on bolls for up to 25 days, usually at a time when fibers are developing inside the boll,” he noted. “So it makes senses that the feeding would affect fiber quality.”

Some growers still aren’t convinced about the quality of 555 and other transgenics that have become available in recent years.

“We saw a lot of short staple cotton in 1997 and in 1998,” said an Alabama grower who asked not to be identified. “It was hot and dry in 1998 so we said that was the problem. But we have continued to have quality problems with Roundup Ready varieties.

“We started trending back to conventional varieties in the last two years and our staple started coming back.”

Recaps from the grower’s gin in central Alabama indicated that 555 had shorter staple, lower strength, higher micronaire and lower uniformity in 2002 and 2003. The final recap for the 2004 crop was not available at press time.

Brown said he was concerned that with the hot, dry conditions they experienced this past summer Georgia growers might see reduced quality in the variety they grew on 55 percent of their acreage in 2004.

But that wasn’t the case, he noted, adding that the grade, staple and strength of Deltapine 555 and other varieties were much improved in 2004 compared to 2003.

He said he also agrees with statements that Deltapine 555 BG/RR represents an improvement in fiber quality over Deltapine 458, which was just as dominant in Georgia three years ago as 555 was in 2004.

“There’s no question that 555 is better than 458 in terms of fiber quality,” he said. “We’re still not where we want to be, particularly with short fiber content where we have a ways to go. “But we’re getting better, and we’re working on it.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com