It looks like cotton varieties could again be a hot topic at the next Beltwide Cotton Conference. An informal survey of cotton producers and cotton specialists in the Mid-South indicates that another short-staple, high-micronaire cotton crop is developing.

It's too early in the season to know for sure how severe the problem is or if genetics, transgenics or environment is to blame. And in one region, a stacked variety being blamed for quality problems was planted on so many acres that it's hard to say how another variety might have performed in its place.

In west Tennessee, quality reports indicate that much of the early crop is high mike and short staple, but area Extension specialist Craig Massey is reserving judgment about the role of genetics until he has a little more information. “We have to wait and see. There could be other factors involved. We need to get with the ginners and do a little more investigating.”

Massey said that as of Oct. 8, about half of the west Tennessee cotton crop was harvested. “Yields are a lot better than we had anticipated, about 30 percent better than last year.”

A large majority of west Tennessee cotton is planted to a high-yielding, transgenic variety, PM 1218 BR. On several farms, conventional cotton varieties appear to have avoided any extraordinary quality problems. Covington, Tenn., cotton producer Ken Ralph says he'll harvest about two bales an acre on one 100-acre field of dryland cotton planted to Phytogen 355.

Ralph, who planted 1,500 acres of conventional and BXN cotton varieties this year, has not received quality information on that field, but on other conventional cotton fields “my strength is high, my staple is around 35 and the mike is running a fuzz high. But we didn't get as much rain as we did on the 100-acre field. Mike is going to average around 5.0. But it will go in the loan at around 48 to 50 cents.”

Ralph cleaned up weeds in his conventional cotton for around $35 an acre, but he stressed, “I didn't have to pay any technology fees. Plus, I didn't have to spray for worms,” said Ralph, whose cotton is in a boll weevil eradication program.

Missouri Extension cotton specialist Bobby Phipps is hoping that mike improves as the Bootheel harvest continues. But it doesn't look good early. “We got a report from one gin that had ginned about 580 bales and 500 of them had high mike. Around 280 bales had a mike of over 5.2. You could see it coming. It was dry during the summer when cotton was blooming.”

Phipps says that cotton breeders aren't entirely to blame if the high mike problem continues. “High mike translates into yield. The first three things a breeder has to breed for if he's going to be successful is yield, yield and yield. The farmers are going to demand it over quality. There's no question about that. And when you do, it forces breeders to breed high micronaire.”

Phipps says that the industry should not forsake such an approach. Rather, “put the yield potential in there, and let us control it with good irrigation and a timely defoliation. That way, we can have the best of both worlds. If you try to control it by breeding a lower mike, you'll have years when you hurt your yield.”

Phipps recommends that every year, growers include the mike average in their defoliation decision. He suggested a mike test developed by cotton breeder Hal Lewis. “Or you could take a sample down to the classing office and let them run the mike. That way you protect your yield. You don't want to give up any yield if you don't have to. Defoliate the last day that you can keep it under 5.0.

“It's like Blackjack,” Phipps added. “You want to get as close to 21 as you can get and not go over. Each one-tenth of a point in micronaire represents 2 percent in yield. But after 5.0, you don't make money. The penalty is far greater than the yield increase.”

Phipps believes mike will improve as the harvest season progresses. “We have a big top crop that developed late in the season because we didn't have weevils. Because such a large part of the crop is a top crop, it ought to pull the average mike down.”

“We're seeing some good yields, much better than average,” said Allen Helms, cotton producer from Clarkedale, Ark., who was about 50 percent harvested as of the first week in October.

“We're getting a lot of high mike on the dryland. The irrigated is running a little on the high side, too. We're also seeing a fair amount of short staple.”

Helms attributed the short-staple problem to genetics, rather than weather problems. “Basically, 100 percent of the short-staple problem is coming from the same variety. I think the high mike is spread over some other factors.”

Helms planted his cotton acreage in 2-1 skip this year and believes he'll harvest about 90 percent of the yield he would have expected in solid cotton. “Hopefully, we've held our inputs to 85 to 87 percent of solid. It's going to be close.”

Helms is just now getting started stripping his ultra-narrow row cotton, “and it looks like it's going to be our biggest yielder. We still have to get it ginned.”

Northeast Louisiana cotton producer Scott Watson said the cotton acreage he manages for Panola Co. has been averaging 775 pounds per acre. Like many south Delta farming operations, Panola experienced a lot of preharvest seed germination in early cotton. “The cotton that was the most open had more damage. Most of the cotton we're getting to now has more of a boll rot or hard lock problem.”

Quality “is not looking too bad. Our biggest problem is short staple.”

Asked if the problem was related to variety, Watson said, “I haven't had time to really research it. I'm interested in seeing, but I just don't have any varieties pulled out yet. I'm just looking at the overall farm.”

As of Oct. 8, Watson had completed about two-thirds of harvest.


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com