Ray Young's seen a lot of cotton crops come and go over the decades. But, says the veteran farmer/consultant, the cotton quality that's such an issue in international trade these days was pretty much the norm on the Louisiana farm where he grew up in the 1930s and 1940s.
“We planted a variety called Half-and-Half. It produced quality, very white cotton. But… it was all hand-picked and was picked as it opened. There was no trash — we got the leaf off before the cotton ever went in the sack.
“We've seen a lot of varieties since then, some of which lasted only a short time and were gone.”
The question, Young told members of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association recently, is: How important is cotton quality?
“Producers in our area have historically chosen varieties based on yield, not quality, figuring the money they'd get from additional yield would offset any penalty for quality. From 1990 to 1995, 80 percent to 90 percent of the cotton in Louisiana was of the three top-yielding varieties. In 1996 to 1999, that changed significantly due to Bt and Roundup Ready varieties — growers chose technology over yield and quality.”
Since then, he says, the percentage based on yield has risen a bit, but technology is still the driving factor in variety choice.
Until growers can get paid for quality, Young says, “I believe most will continue to choose varieties for yield potential over quality. I hope, in the next few years, varieties will become available that will both yield well and grade well to suit the demands of the international market.”
For the grower aiming for quality, he says, the most important step is variety selection. “Quality is affected more by genetics than anything else. After variety selection, managing for quality is about the same as managing for yield.
“You want to get the cotton out of the ground, growing, setting a crop, and maturing in as short a time as possible, while maintaining a compact plant. Seed treatments are important to get plants off to a healthy start. Most higher-yielding varieties are long-season, tall-growing, he notes, and use of a growth regulator should also be part of the management program.
“Insect control is important to help retain as much fruit as possible. Plant bugs, stink bugs, aphids, whiteflies, and other insects can adversely affect lint quality, and should be controlled in a timely fashion. Controlling weeds, to reduce competition and avoid harvest contamination, also influences quality. Droughty cotton produces short fibers and high mike, so irrigation should be started timely and ended timely.
“Proper use of harvest aids is important to protect quality. If you harvest a really clean crop, it will be easier to gin and preserve that quality. Ginners can only work with the cotton we bring them.”
All these practices combined can help grow and harvest the quality inherent in a variety, Young says.
“Farmers are willing to grow cotton for quality — if it adds to their bottom line. Plant breeders are working on quality, but it's a constantly moving target. Still, we have to respond to what the market wants if we're going to stay in the cotton business.”