For a while early this year, it looked like bashing seed companies was about to become a new winter sport for cotton farmers. At the January Beltwide Conferences, the premier production information forum for the cotton industry, variety development and fiber quality occupied major portions of the first two days of the meetings.

Seed companies took it on the chin for everything from the perceived yield "plateau" of recent years to a reported decline in fiber length and strength and an increase in micronaire.

The criticism seems to have eased in recent months. Part of that may have been farmers becoming engrossed in fieldwork. But, it’s also because seed companies have quietly begun putting the word out that they haven’t been "asleep at the switch" on new variety development.

"It really does take eight years at a minimum and more like 10 from the time a breeder makes a cross until a new variety is available in the market," says Tom Kerby, vice president for Technical Service at Delta and Pine Land Co. in Scott, Miss.

"You don’t know until fairly late in the process whether a variety will be as good as you think it is. But, we have some varieties on the verge of being released that we are getting very excited about."

Not that the current varieties are that bad. Kerby says Delta and Pine Land recently completed a statistical analysis using data from its Agronomic Information System that indicates that varieties weren’t to blame for the supposedly flat yields and "deteriorating" fiber quality of recent growing seasons.

The results of the analysis, which compared yield and fiber quality data from tests on 54 varieties in all cotton-growing states except California, were reported at the Engineered Fiber Systems Conference in June. (California was not included because not enough tests on San Joaquin Valley varieties were entered in the Agronomic Information System.)

"In essence, what we did was analyze the yield and fiber quality for these significant varieties from 1995 to now using statistics in which you could zero out the impact of the environment where they were grown," he said. "That allows you to get pretty good estimates of the real differences between the varieties.

"Then, we superimposed those numbers on the year-by-year USDA varieties planted figures across the United States."

Over those six years, the statistical analysis indicated, growers saw an average increase in yield in the university official variety trials of 6.5 pounds per acre per year. For the Delta and Pine Land varieties that average was closer to 9 pounds per acre.

Fiber length did decline slightly — by about one-third of a staple length. Strength has remained the same and micronaire has increased by about 0.01 unit per year, according to the analysis.

"Farmers buy seed of the things they know give them the greatest economic return," says Kerby. "So, that has been the trend. The things that are high-yielding now, that give the greatest economic return, have a little less fiber quality and higher yield than the things they replace."

Kerby said U.S. textile mills are correct in saying that in the last three years the U.S. crop "has not quite been up to long-term snuff. Most of that is environment, as researchers like Bill Meredith of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service at Stoneville, Miss., have shown."

Meredith, who is with USDA’s Crop Genetics and Production Research Unit, also presented a paper at the EFS Conference that showed a direct relationship between decreases in yield and fiber length and the average high temperature during July and August. The association was for Mississippi covering many years.

"As we look at this, we’re seeing that variety has been a minor part of this, and it also says that we have not had the yield plateau based on varieties," says Kerby. "With the yield plateau we’re getting, there is something else out there — whether it’s the increased acreage we’ve been planting, farm programs or nematodes.

"There is no question that yields have not been increasing in the field. But, when we get a direct comparison of the genetics, they have been increasing. With 3,500 direct comparisons between the varieties planted in recent years to those before the introduction of transgenics, we’re seeing an increase of 62 pounds per acre with a value of about $28 per acre ."

Although the genetics growers have available now are demonstrably better than those of 10 years ago, those gains may pale in comparison to what’s on the horizon, Kerby says.

"Quite frankly, we think we are seeing a breakthrough in yield and quality that is unparalleled," said Kerby.

Example: Delta and Pine Land is testing a new full-season variety — DP 491 — that in tests at 31 locations over the last three years has produced yields that average 8 percent higher than the commercial standard, ST 474.

DP 491 has shown an average staple length of 37.5, strength of 29 grams per tex and micronaire between 4.0 and 4.2. Length and strength are well above the standard variety’s average of 34.6 and strength of 27.8 and below the average micronaire of 4.6.

Another full-season variety, DP 555 B/RR, produced yields that averaged 20 percent higher than those of NuCOTN 33B at 26 locations in 2000. (NuCOTN 33B averaged 1,168 pounds of lint per acre at the 26 locations.) Staple length was slightly lower than 33B’s 35.5, strength somewhat lower than 33B’s 28.3 and micronaire about 6 percent lower than 33B’s 4.37.

"The main point with DP 555 B/RR is the tremendous yield potential," said Kerby. "We’re seeing a very high-yielding variety with roughly the same fiber quality as Deltapine 5690."

Depending on seed availability, both DP 491 and DP 555 B/RR could be commercially launched next year, according to Kerby.

Further down the road, Delta and Pine Land is looking at an experimental full-season variety that, for now, is showing 30 percent higher yields with comparable length, strength and micronaire of the commercial standard.

The experimental variety — identified in the D&PL testing program as 00Q01 — could be available for release in 2003 or 2004.

Two experimental early-season varieties could provide strong yields and significantly higher fiber quality, according to Kerby.

One of the varieties, 00S04, could be available for commercial launch in 2003. In tests at 45 locations last year, 00S04 was about 1 percent longer and 3 to 4 percent stronger than the commercial standard. Micronaire was 10 percent lower than the standard.

In tests at seven locations in 2000, the second variety, 99M03, was higher-yielding than SG 747 and had an average strength of 31 grams per tex. It had an average length of 36 and micronaire of 4.0. Both could be available in the next two to three years.

Asked why the new breakthrough in yield and quality is occurring, Kerby points to "10 well-staffed, worldwide breeding programs.

"Since I came to the company seven years ago, the number of plant breeders — individuals whose sole responsibility is to develop new germplasm, not transgenics or anything else — has almost doubled," he noted.

"I think the public perception has been that we at Delta and Pine Land have been sitting on our hands; that we haven’t been developing new germplasm; that all we care about is transgenics. And nothing could be further from the truth."

Although much of the grower’s attention has been focused on the transgenic varieties, "if we don’t have superior genetics to put those traits in, we’re not going to be in the ballgame long-term," he noted.

Some of the most promising new varieties are products of Delta and Pine Land’s international breeding programs.

"Dr. Meredith and other researchers have talked about the narrow range of material that has been in the backgrounds of our commercial varieties in recent years," he said. "But, these new potential releases are from some very wide crosses."

While Delta and Pine Land is not willing to discuss the genetic backgrounds until the new varieties are patented, Kerby said growers would be surprised at some of the parentages.

"The new experimental 99M03 just blows me away," he said. "Our breeders took two parents that seemed to have no fit whatsoever and produced this very high-yielding, very high-strength, premium micronaire variety. And what’s even more surprising is that the two parents, both full-season varieties, produced an early-season variety."

Kerby said Delta and Pine Land’s focus on breeding germplasm continues until a new variety is on the verge of commercial release. "We intentionally do not insert the transgenics until late in the process because we want to make sure we have a good, strong variety.

"But, we also know that it is much easier to put a new transgene in than it is to take something out. We know that Monsanto and other companies are developing new potential transgenic products, and we don’t want to have to try to take one gene out and put another in.

It wasn’t a comfortable feeling working for seed companies last winter, Kerby acknowledges. "We’ve been on the other end, taking shots from other segments," he noted. "But, we wanted to get our facts together before we said anything. We haven’t had a deaf ear to the problems of the industry."

As for the new varieties Delta and Pine Land is developing, Kerby says company executives are trying to reign in their enthusiasm. "Oftentimes, new varieties don’t completely live up to their early performance noted under initial testing. But, if these turn out to be two-thirds as good as we think they will, they will be fantastic."

e-mail: Forrest Laws