Flint on Crops: Cotton Proves Itself Through Heat and Drought

    Cotton is not native to North America, but it has found a home here away from its origins in equatorial regions where it grows as a perennial shrub or small tree. During the time I worked as a field hand (now call a research technician) for the Experiment Station on the MSU campus in the 1960s there was a cotton plant growing inside one of the old greenhouses on the South Farm.

    That cotton plant was not the same species that we grow in our fields which is Gossypium hirsutum or more commonly called “upland cotton”, rather it was Gossypium arboretum. You might expect that with the word “arbor” in its name it would be a tree and that is exactly what it was. It was not growing in a pot but in the soil inside the greenhouse.

    The amazing thing about that cotton plant was that it possessed characteristics for resistance to many diseases, nematodes, and insects. Cotton breeders utilized it as a source of genetic material in their efforts to develop improved cottons. I wish that I had studied it more thoroughly at the time, but I was preoccupied with other things.

    Today that greenhouse has been removed to make space for parking the hundreds of vehicles that bring football fans to campus on fall weekends. Along with it apparently went the cotton tree, but somewhere I bet there is one of its offspring still contributing its genetic material to the efforts of mankind to improve the productivity of the cotton plant. The efforts of cotton breeders have changed the cotton industry dramatically during the last half century but the results of their efforts have never amazed me as much as they have this year.

    Cotton acreage was actually down this year as the result of lower prices and escalating production costs. However, there was quite a lot of cotton planted in the Hill section of Mississippi since the crop is well respected for its capabilities in dealing with the heat and drought periods we commonly experience in this part of the world. Little did we know at planting time that 2015 would thoroughly test our crops for their stress tolerances.

    Following a period of almost daily rains our region entered a prolonged period of high temperatures and very limited rainfall that lasted from about the first week of July until about two weeks ago in the middle of October. Streams dried up, ponds and lakes reached record low levels, temperatures soared above the century mark many days, and all but the hardies of plants and people suffered.

    Cotton showed its staying power and ability to deal with heat and drought stress. These plants were able to follow the ever declining level of available soil moisture left from the early season rains to its source and keep going to produce yields that have amazed most of us who work with cotton and other crops.

    The variety trials I worked with this year produced some of the best yields we have seen in this region. We are usually happy with 750 to 800 pound per acre lint yields, elated with 1000 pounds, and ecstatic with 1500. This year we are somewhere between elated and ecstatic and somewhat amazed as many fields have yielded well over 1000 and quite a few over 1500. This has been true not only for the transgenics but for some of the conventional varieties as well.

    A lot of people who once grew cotton have switched to soybeans and corn in recent years even though they knew that cotton is the “natural” crop for the climate, soils, and “nature” of this region. It will be interesting to see how the results of this season influence plans for 2016.

    Thanks for your time.

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