Question of quality, part four : Georgia fiber issue called crisis

Georgia — which tied with Mississippi in 2003 for second in U.S. cotton production — once enjoyed a reputation within the industry for high-quality fiber. But that's no longer the case. The quality of the state's cotton has declined in recent years, to the point of some textile mills avoiding Georgia cotton and farmers losing money due to deducts in certain grade categories. In this fourth installment of a ongoing series, Delta Farm Press takes a closer look at Georgia's fiber quality problems and what is being done to avoid the stigma of poor quality cotton.

It's not an overstatement to say that cotton fiber quality has reached a crisis point in Georgia. Extension specialists say at least four major U.S. textile mills have indicated their intent either to not purchase 2004 cotton from Georgia or to do so only with higher-than-normal standards.

A prominent merchant said recently that cotton grown in Georgia ranks last in the United States in quality and buyer preference.

These most recent events do not bode well for the Georgia's growers. “I haven't heard anything from merchants about how they are going to handle this, or how they will treat us,” says Steve M. Brown, University of Georgia Extension cotton specialist.

Such a negative stigma, however, could mean a wider basis in cash markets and larger discounts on less-than-desirable fiber quality. Contracts may not be as available to Georgia growers and bid prices could be less competitive.

With two-thirds of the U.S. crop now going into the export market, there are real concerns that Georgia's quality issue may have a ripple effect in foreign markets as well. Many foreign mills have advanced spinning technology, so they're demanding higher quality than some U.S. mills.

The first step towards resolving Georgia's quality issue, says Brown, is determining the specific problem. Reports from mills have been vague. But in general, the consensus is that Georgia cotton does not run efficiently in the yarn spinning process.

“Is it short fiber or below-average fiber length uniformity? There's also the possibility that the problem cannot be identified with HVI data — the standards used in the USDA classing system. First and foremost, we have to identify the problem,” says Brown.

The Georgia Cotton Commission, says Brown, is working with a textile consultant to explore the quality issues with various textile mills. The goal, he adds, is to identify specific fiber parameters responsible for the problems so solutions can be determined. The Southeastern Cotton Ginners Association also is working with gins and certain mills to isolate any problems that may be occurring in handling and processing.

Questions have been raised about the role of variety selection in determining the quality of Georgia cotton, says Brown. Specifically, there have been discussions about the impact of DP 555 BG/RR on quality. The variety occupied about one-third of Georgia's acreage in 2003, and twice that amount is planted in the variety this year, says the agronomist.

“Obviously, the driving force for this variety is yield. Quality-wise, however, it is not a stellar choice. Although it is superior in length and perhaps micronaire compared to DP 458 BR — the dominant variety of previous years — fiber data indicate that DP 555 trends lower in terms of length uniformity and higher in short fiber content,” he says.

Clearly, says Brown, advancements in yield potential and fiber quality do not necessarily occur together. “Whether or not we can choose a variety based exclusively on yield with no regard for quality penalties and market discrimination is unknown — at least until the market speaks as to how Georgia cotton will be treated.”

It's too late, of course, for growers to do anything about variety selection for 2004. But there are a few things producers can do to help insure the quality of this year's crop, says Brown.

“Data has shown us that excessive stink bug damage significantly reduces every measure of fiber quality. So, it's important that we control stink bugs. Stink bugs, along with other bugs, feed on seed within young bolls and frequently cause internal rot. Anything that affects seed development also will affect fiber development.”

Timely defoliation also is important, notes Brown. “We need to get cotton out of the field when it's ready to pick. With considerations for weather and picker availability, fields should be defoliated at 60 to 70 percent open bolls. Too often, we wait until almost every boll is open before applying harvest aids. Most cotton should receive boll openers to expedite leaf drop and harvest readiness.”

Growers also should harvest as soon as possible, he continues. “We need to get in a bigger hurry about harvesting our crop. Rapid, timely harvest minimizes weathering. Combined with proper equipment operation, it insures that growers gather the greatest possible yield at the greatest possible quality. On these latter two points, there is room for considerable improvement. Timely defoliation and harvest is one big step we can take towards enhancing the quality of Georgia cotton.”

And it's no coincidence, says Brown, that cotton quality problems are occurring in the state with the largest peanut acreage.

“Since the late 1980s, tomato spotted wilt virus has shifted the production practices of Georgia peanut growers, many of whom also grow cotton. Prior to the time the virus became a problem, peanut producers were planting in late April. That now has shifted to mid-May and even later in some cases. The result is an early September harvest. Meanwhile, cotton is waiting in the field, losing yield and quality.”

Some growers simply can't harvest cotton when they would like because their labor situation requires that they be digging peanuts, he says.

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