Published on 10/16/08

UGA research helps farmers ‘hire’ the best cotton

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

It’s not the wires and tubing dangling from the handcrafted metal cart that make it stand out in the south Georgia cotton field. It’s the pink and white girl bicycle tires.

When asked about the tires, Glen Ritchie smiles. “The people who engineered it up in Athens (Ga.) must have had a twisted sense of humor,” said the cotton physiologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “We’ve gotten a lot of attention for some of the gadgets we use to collect data.”

Ritchie routinely uses a car-sized blimp to take aerial pictures of cotton fields.

The cart, though, brings the view down close to the plants. It is a sort of mobile laboratory equipped with various sensors used to measure different readings in and around the cotton. Ritchie will use the data to write a more detailed story, so to speak, of what the plants are doing during the growing season.

The research will help farmers manage the crop better and make informed decisions on what varieties to plant in the future. Most important, he said, they’ll know how a plant will perform throughout the year.

“We really haven’t been able to incorporate much physiology into variety selection over the years,” he said. ”Variety selection and recommendations to growers pretty much come from just looking at yields and quality at the end of the year, and you go from there.”

But much happens in a cotton field from planting until harvest. “What I want to know is how we got from point A to point B,” he said.

In a perfect scientific world, time and money aren’t limited. It would be nice to know, for example, how a variety would perform over a 100-year period in one location. But that’s not possible. Variety trials take place in only a few years.

Pushing his cart through the cotton, Ritchie collects data on plant height, root system, vegetative growth, sunlight capture and temperature. He compares these measurements with soil moisture, and with the number and location of the plant’s bolls, or the fruits that produce the cotton lint.

“With a limited number of years, which is the reality, we have to develop ways to identify these factors to determine what the variety’s real response will be over time and dial into what it is doing,” he said. “We’re looking for factors to improve growth habits and pick the varieties that do well and know what management strategies the variety needs to grow best.”

Finding a cotton variety to use, he said, is like hiring a prospective employee for a job. First, as much information as possible needs to be learned about the applicants. Once the decision is made, the next thing is to help the new employee reach full potential.

This year, Ritchie collected data on 15 varieties, some available and some not yet available to farmers. Each variety was grown with and without irrigation to determine its performance in drought and nondrought conditions.

Many Georgia cotton farmers are looking for a new cotton variety to hire, or plant. Over the past few years, Delta Pine 555 has become their workhorse variety. It accounts for 75 percent of the state’s total cotton acreage. Over the next few years, it will be phased out due to the company’s decision to sell cotton with a slightly different genetic makeup.

“So, many growers want to know what they can do and what recommendations we’ll have for them,” Ritchie said. “With this research, we’ll have some answers for them.”

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.