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Variety Trials Give Glimpse of Cotton's Future

LAS CRUCES -- Harvesting cotton was more complicated than usual in one of Charles Tharp's fields northwest of Las Cruces last fall. Each of six different cotton varieties was harvested separately and made into individual modules as part of on-farm research trials with New Mexico State University.


Tharp and 17 other producers in cotton-growing regions of New Mexico thought the painstaking work was worth it.

"It gives us the opportunity to grow some of the very latest varieties, to look and see what possibly we could have in the future," Tharp said.

The trials tested 27 different cotton varieties on farms in Dona Ana, Luna, Eddy and Lea counties.

The growers' patience will provide valuable information about yields and quality, said Shane Ball, agronomist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service.

Because many trials were repeated over a large scale, results are more reliable. Sites ranged in size from 3.3 to 80 acres. Even with four-row harvesters, some trials took more than a day to harvest.

From preliminary yield information, Ball found that the trials showed consistently high yields for most varieties.

"What we learn from studies like Charles Tharp's is how close the top varieties are in yield capabilities," Ball said.

Working with experienced producers also showed him what a difference good management can make.

"I looked up the statewide average for the past year, and it's 683 pounds per acre, compared with an overall average of 1,373 pounds per acre for all of the trials," he said. "To me, it's just an indication of the quality of producers involved in the trials and the excellent job they do."

A major decision for cotton producers is whether to grow long-staple Acala 1517 cottons developed at NMSU, which command premium prices for their quality, or plant "boll guard" varieties with built-in genes to fight increasing problems with pests like the pink bollworm.

In terms of average yields, the boll guard varieties had a slight edge over the Acalas in 1997, Ball said. However, Acalas can command a 5- to 10-cent per pound premium for fiber quality.

"The Acalas yield superbly but may take a little more care and management," he said. "Growers who switch to boll guard varieties for higher yields also need to think about quality, so they don't get killed at the gin with low quality and low prices."

However, the built-in insecticides of boll guard varieties may be an effective tool for producers, especially in small fields or near residential areas where spraying and intensive management aren't feasible, Ball said.

"I encourage growers to look at new varieties in their own on-farm trials, and if they're switching, to start with a percentage of their acreage."

Whatever variety they choose, growers must think of pests like pink bollworms, boll weevils, whiteflies and aphids in 1998, Ball said.

"Last year, most of the insect problems occurred in the last few weeks of the season," he said. "My first recommendation this season would be that, whatever cotton variety they're growing, producers plan to get it out of the field earlier this year with techniques such as using defoliants and cutting off irrigation earlier."

The trials also provided information on the weed front. NMSU weed scientist Richard Lee's preliminary findings were that Roundup-ready cotton varieties could help growers combat nutsedge, a troublesome weed. Because of their genetics, Roundup-ready cottons can survive being sprayed with herbicides early in the season, making weed control easier and more effective.

Next season, on-farm trials will continue, thanks to growers' strong interest, Ball said. He plans the first tests of "stacked" varieties, a combination of Roundup-ready and boll guard qualities, with built-in insecticide and herbicide resistance.

Other research innovations include using a day-degree computer model to help growers pinpoint when to spray -- before insects get out of control. Ball also wants to work with NMSU economists to find ways of comparing the bottom lines for varieties. He will continue to cooperate with NMSU researchers and Extension agents in Artesia and Carlsbad in the Pecos Valley.

Though they're a lot of work, the on-farm trials may offer a glimpse of what cotton's future looks like in New Mexico.