Beltwide aims for higher cotton yields, quality

After seemingly being stuck on a yield and quality plateau for years, cotton varieties have begun “busting out the top” of the yield and quality charts, helping U.S. growers produce back-to-back record crops in the last two years. But it's possible that U.S. producers “haven't seen anything yet,” according to a veteran cotton breeder who works for one of the new kids on the block among U.S. cottonseed companies.

“We have had varieties with 40 staple and 40 strength,” says Tom Kilgore, cotton breeder with Beltwide Cotton Genetics, the Collierville, Tenn.-based cottonseed company started by Delta King Seed Co. founder Noal Lawhon. “And those varieties have produced good yields.”

Kilgore credits the south Texas base he uses for his cotton breeding efforts for the success some of the new Beltwide Cotton varieties seem to be enjoying.

Although Beltwide Cotton Genetics is based in west Tennessee and Delta King, its sister company, is headquartered in McCrory, Ark., Kilgore hails from the more tropical Rio Grande Valley area of south Texas.

That locale and the fact that Beltwide grows most of its seed production in west Texas, helps explain why Beltwide's varieties are better known in Texas than in the Mid-South and Southeast. But Beltwide representatives are working on the latter.

“Most of the cotton breeding you read about has been done in the Delta or Lubbock or California or St. Louis,” says Kilgore. “We're in south Texas, and we believe that gives us several advantages.”

For one, cotton is a semi-tropical plant, which fits well with the semi-tropical climate in the Rio Grande Valley area of Harlingen, Texas. Another is that the mild south Texas winters allow Kilgore to plant and harvest at least two greenhouse crops per season.

“The semi-tropical climate allows me to accomplish two and sometimes three complete growing cycles per season,” he said. “In the last nine years, I've already run 18 cycles through my program.

Although Kilgore's varieties are developed in south Texas, they appear to be gaining “traction” in other parts of the state.

Bobby Byrd, a producer from Hale Center, which is located north of Lubbock on the High Plains, said of his experience with BW-4021 B2RF stacked gene cotton, “I was a little worried about planting it so late (May 28). I had another variety of similar maturity in between BW-4021B2F and my other varieties, but this beat it in yield and quality.”

The field of BW-4021 B2F produced an average of 1,425 pounds of lint per acre with a staple length of 35.91, micronaire of 3.58 and strength in the 28 to 30 range. The loan value of the cotton was 56.98 cents per pound.

“I was very surprised with that being my first year with Roundup Ready Flex,” he said. “All told, I made three applications of Roundup WeatherMax on it, and it turned into the prettiest patch of cotton I've ever seen. This was also the second highest loan value I had in 2005. The best was 57.03 cents per pound.”

Beltwide varieties are also beginning to attract attention in the Mid-South, according to Ray Young, a consultant who works for growers in northeast Louisiana.

Young, who has been scouting cotton since the early 1950s, said he was impressed with the way Beltwide's BW-9124 B2F grew off in a trial on one of the Panola Co.'s farms near St. Joseph in northeast Louisiana last spring.

“It has a fairly open canopy,” he said. “Some of these varieties are so thick you can't set bolls in the bottom of the plant. It appeared to yield with their best varieties this year, but we'll have to see how it yields over time.” The block of BW-9124B2F averaged 2.75 bales per acre.

The micronaire for BW-9124 B2F averaged 4.3, which was below the readings for a number of other varieties planted in northeast Louisiana in 2005. The staple for BW-9124B2F averaged 34.5, “but there were a lot of 36s, 37s and 38s.

“They're saying the surface has just been scratched with some of these new varieties,” he said. “I'm not sure it has been. The jury is still out on that, but I believe we'll be trying this variety on a much larger basis next year.”

Rick Rice, director of marketing for Beltwide Cotton Genetics, said he believes the 2005 results for Beltwide's varieties are validating the company's decision to move directly to the Roundup Ready Flex and Bollgard 2 technologies when it began its breeding program rather than to the Roundup Ready and Bollgard traits.

“I think you can see why we're so excited about our new varieties and about the ones that we'll be introducing in future years,” he said. “And I think you can see why we think the world is about to change for cotton producers.”

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