Agribusiness: Phytogen gunning for larger share of U.S. cotton market

Seven years ago Phytogen was a fledgling cotton seed company in California. Today its Acala and Pima cotton varieties dominate San Joaquin Valley cotton acreage. With almost two dozen cotton varieties available in 2006, Phytogen is going after a similarly significant chunk of what Dow AgroSciences global cotton market specialist Duane Canfield calls the rest of the U.S Cotton Belt, “the market east of California.”

Five years ago Phytogen, a joint venture of America’s largest producer, J.G. Boswell Co. and Dow AgroSciences, began introducing non-transgenic germplasm into the California market and today those cottons dominate the acreage. According to Canfield, Phytogen cotton varieties accounted for about 60 percent of the SJV Acala acreage and about 80 percent of the SJV Pima acreage this season.

With a breeding program in Leland, Miss. since 1990, Canfield says Phytogen is in the midst of a similar plan to become a major player in the remainder of the Cotton Belt with an “overall goal of having cotton varieties with Acala quality in the Mid-South within five years — without reducing yields.”

Acala is the dominant Upland cotton type in California and commands a fiber premium on the world market. More than 90 percent of California Acala cotton has been exported for decades. With increasingly fewer U.S. textile mills to buy cotton grown nearby, exports have become the primary outlet for Mid-South and Southeast cottons. However, growers there are finding their cottons discounted because they do not meet what is considered the minimum quality for world traded cotton.

Phytogen’s pledge to achieve Acala-type quality in Mid-South cotton is part of a growing trend from all the major cotton seed companies to improve cotton quality in the area.

With a stable of limited introductions for the area already, Canfield said “rarely” is a Phytogen variety discounted and “some are quite comparable to Fibermax cottons.” Fibermax varieties from Bayer CropScience are popular in several areas of the Cotton Belt because of their fiber package. Fibermax cottons are used in textiles as a substitute for Acala.

“Phytogen cottons meet the world standard for quality, and they yield well,” said Canfield. Canfield added that Phytogen’s breeding effort is using a “marker program second to none” to identify not only fiber quality traits for new varieties, but also to develop host plant resistance traits that could make cotton resistant to plant bugs. He said this Phytogen cotton breeding effort is “about ready to make another breakthrough in our breeding program.”

Canfield promises a more aggressive Phytogen marketing program in 2006. Heretofore, Phytogen varieties have been part of the marketing effort of Dow AgroSciences chemical sales representatives. “We are adding cotton specialists and cotton technical reps to our Phytogen staff,” explained Canfield.

From West to East, here are the varieties Phytogen will offer in 2006. Canfield said commercial supplies will be available in all varieties:

California Acalas: PHY 72 and PHY 78, both conventionals have been around for several seasons. 72 is the No. 1 in the San Joaquin. New for 2006 will be 725 RF (Roundup Flex). It is similar to 72.PHY 715 RF is an Acala with a Phy 78 background. Phytogen will offer its first Widestrike insect protection cotton in California in 2006. It will be a stacked gene, 745 WRF, and will target areas where the beet armyworm can be a problem. Phytogen 800, the Pima variety planted on 80 percent of the SJV Pima acreage, will continue to be the standard in the Extra Long Staple market. Phytogen will continue to sell Phytogen 76 and the only Roundup-resistant Pima available 810 R, available only in limited quantities. Canfield said Roundup Flex version of 800 should be available in 2007 or 2008.

East of California: There will be 14 varieties available for Cotton Belt states from Arizona through the Southeast. All will be transgenic. One will be a stripper variety, Phy 125 RF and another will be a New Mexico Acala, 1517-99W with the Widestrike gene in it.

There will be 11 varieties specifically targeted for picker areas from Arizona east. They are: Phy 310R, Phy 410R, Phy 415RF, Phy 510R, Phy 440W, Phy 370WR, Phy 470WR, Phy 480WR, Phy 475 WRF and Phy 485 WRF.

Canfield said the numbering reflects the maturity ratings of the cotton with 300 varieties considered early maturity; 400 medium maturity and 500 full season varieties.

Phytogen was founded in 1980 by the J.G. Boswell, the largest cotton farming operation in the U.S. Boswell/Phytogen formed a joint venture Mycogen — an affiliate of Dow AgroSciences — in 1998. From that merger came the varieties that now dominate SJV cotton acreage.

Phytogen glyphosate-resistant cottons are licensed from Monsanto. The insect protection Widestrike technology was developed by Dow AgroSciences. It was introduced into the market this season after gaining Environmental Protection Agency registration.

Widestrike is a new, stacked insect-protection trait expresses two Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) proteins — Cry1F and Cry1Ac — in cotton plants, providing season-long protection from a broad spectrum of destructive cotton pests. It provides a high level of activity against worm pests such as cotton bollworm, tobacco budworm, beet armyworm, fall armyworm, soybean loopers, cabbage loopers, and pink bollworm.

This year Widestrike was available in three new elite cotton varieties from Phytogen. Next year it will also be available stacked with the Roundup Ready trait.

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