Show us the money: That's the response of U.S. cotton growers to complaints by international buyers about fiber quality.
While foreign buyers say they want higher fiber quality, Bill Meredith, cotton geneticist with USDA's Agricultural Research Service at Stoneville, Miss., says the cold, hard economic reality is that the grower can get more money by shooting for high yield than by striving for higher quality.
“Last year, the very worst penalty a grower could get was 55 points and the very best premium was 55 points,” he told the Delta Council's Ginning and Cotton Quality Improvement Committee in a joint meeting with the Southern Cotton Ginners Association.
Using market loan value figures, he says, yield “is going to completely overshadow” the 55-point penalty for quality.
He says 2001 studies, based on loan value of the variety being tested, showed 85 percent of the total variability in cotton value per acre for early-maturing varieties was in yield.
“Yield is very important in how much the total value of the crop is going to be.
“If we switch and ask how much quality is worth, based on the loan, it's zero. Everybody knows this and consequently, from year to year growers concentrate on yield more than fiber quality.”
For late-maturing varieties, it's much the same story, Meredith says, with 92 percent of the total variability in cotton value being due to yield, not fiber quality.
“There is no relationship, when you put the loan value into the equation, insofar as total income to the grower. There is a side issue, in that the loan price isn't necessarily what you're going to get — it's a guideline. If you have an organization or a contract that specifies a certain type of cotton, you can get points above the loan, which would change the picture. But you've got to have a contract in advance to expect this — you don't just grow it and then try to bargain for extra points.”
Why don't breeders solve these problems?
Well, they could, says Meredith. “These traits are heritable; they're easy to work with. But there's a negative genetic association between everything the textile industry runs and yield.
“You make a change of 1/100 of an inch in fiber length, you lose about 3 pounds in yield. For one unit of uniformity, you lose about 13 pounds. For one unit of HVI strength, you lose about 14 pounds. Increase micronaire one unit, you gain 9 pounds (and that's why it has been going up — micronaire is associated with higher yields).”
From a practical standpoint, based on what mills say they want, meeting their quality specs would cost a total of 190 pounds on average, Meredith says.
“Breeders can develop varieties that do better than average, but even so, the grower would still be losing about 100 pounds of lint, and right now it's not worth it economically.”
The industry currently is focusing primarily on what's taking place with fiber quality, “but the negative associations of good fiber traits and yield are a major problem we've not solved in my career. It's hard to get increases in yield and fiber quality at the same time.”
The bottom line, Meredith says: “At present, the grower can make more money based on yield. In the long run, I think survival in the international market is going to depend on our dedication to producing a quality product. We have the best technology in the world and we have the capability and the organizational structure — if we can just meet this yield/quality challenge.”