If breeders put all the qualities into cotton that textile mills say they need in order to make the fiber run better on their high speed machines, the average grower could expect to lose 77 pounds of yield per acre, says Bill Meredith.

“And meeting future mill requirements could double that loss,” the USDA/Agricultural Research Service cotton geneticist told members of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association at their summer meeting at Biloxi, Miss.

“Anytime you focus breeding on particular qualities, you're likely to lose something — and that something may be yield.”

And Meredith noted, “In the market system we have now, there are no financial incentives for growers to improve cotton fiber quality. This needs to be changed, so growers can afford to put more emphasis on providing the quality the mills say they want.”

Unless something is done to enable mills to more profitably use cotton, more of them will shut their doors or move to other countries where labor is cheaper and regulations are less stringent, he said.

“Textile imports have mushroomed from 5.6 million bale equivalents to 10.6 million over the last five to six years. In 1997, the U.S. textile industry used 11.4 million bales of cotton; in 2001 they're projected to use only 8.5 million. Last year, 100 U.S. mills were lost.

“American cotton growers are losing their best customer,” Meredith said. “If this industry's going to survive, we're going to have to put our heads together and come up with a new strategy. It will need to be an all-encompassing strategy, involving producers, ginners, mills, and breeders. We have the best technology in the world; we just have to figure how best to use it to enable everyone to stay in business.”

Many U.S. mills are facing a choice: either modernize or close, he said. “To modernize, they say they need improvements in fiber quality that will allow faster spinning.”

The fly in the ointment, Meredith says, is that there are no data to demonstrate definitively just how much of the various fiber qualities would be optimal for the mills' use.

To that end, he suggests, “We need to be able to actually run cotton of various qualities through the mills in order to generate data on what works best.

“It's important that we produce a good data set that can be used to predict lint value of different varieties grown under varying environmental conditions and to determine what kind of fiber properties a variety should have to meet mill criteria.”

As one step toward that goal, textile mill variety tests are being conducted this year at locations in Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas, Meredith said.

“In the 2000 crop, we got a pretty wide range of fiber quality, indicating we can produce cotton with greater strength and length.”

While both environment and genetics have an influence on yield, he said the interaction between the two can result in as much as a 300-pound per acre shift from one year to the next.

“Over the last 20 years in Mississippi, there have been a lot of zigs and zags in yield from year to the next, mainly due to environment/weather. If we remove those weather zigs and zags, the increase in yield due to improved technology over those two decades is only 1.3 pounds per acre per year.

“And if we plot the average weather, mainly July/August temperatures, with the yields over those 20 years, the resultant graph explains 70 percent of the yield variation during that period.”

Only 7 percent of the yield variation across the cotton belt is due to genetics, Meredith said. “But length, strength, and micronaire have a large genetic component, and they're easy to manage in breeding programs.”

New transgenic varieties, which have been widely adopted by growers in recent seasons, “are easy to manage, but they have been bred to provide added value, not increased yield,” he said.

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com