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USDA Cotton Classing Office expanding automated processing, maintaining standards

USDA Cotton Classing Office in Memphis, Tenn., is expanding automation in its classing procedures, while also maintaining grading standards for the cotton industry worldwide.

Ginger Rowsey

May 19, 2021

9 Slides
Cotton Conveyor 2.jpeg

Increased technology and automation are allowing the USDA Cotton Classing Office to more accurately and efficiently class the millions of cotton samples that come through the doors. Ginger Rowsey

Recently, I had the opportunity to tour the USDA Cotton Classification Complex in Memphis, Tenn., It serves as the Program’s field headquarters and houses one of 10 regional classing offices located throughout the nation’s cotton producing areas. Together these regional offices grade every bale of cotton produced in the United States, but the Memphis office is special. 

Most every bale of cotton produced in the world — not just the U.S. — has a connection to the USDA Cotton & Tobacco Program in Memphis. You could say the same for every pair of jeans or every cotton shirt in existence. Cotton standards used across the world originate at this facility. The cotton standards connect every facet of the cotton industry — from agricultural production to textiles. 

The facility offers a view of the past, as well as the future. In the Standards Division, along with instrument classification standards, the physical representations of the cotton standards — known as “biscuits” — are still meticulously made by hand with highly skilled Standards Assemblers. Meanwhile, in the Grading Division, increased technology and automation are allowing the Program to more accurately and efficiently class the millions of cotton samples that come through the doors. 

The process 

The tour was led by Byron Cole, Deputy Director of Grading for all classing offices, and David Rowland, Area Director of the Memphis classing office, as well as Gretchen Deatherage, Director of the Standardization and Engineering Division. The team walked us through the classification process from start to finish. 

After cotton is ginned, a sample from each bale — along with a unique permanent bale identification (PBI) tag — are shipped to one of the 10 regional classing offices to be processed. During the peak of the region’s harvest season, the Memphis office may receive up to 50,000 samples a day. 

Each classing lab maintains strict temperature (70 degrees +/-1) and humidity (65% +/- 2) levels required for fiber testing.  Before grading can begin, samples must be conditioned to the proper moisture content. Arranged in perforated plastic trays, the samples are placed on a conveyor belt and run through the Rapid Conditioning Unit (RCU). This RCU pulls conditioned air through the cotton, getting each sample to the exact moisture content necessary for proper evaluation. This process takes about 10 to 15 minutes, and at completion the samples are ready to be instrument tested. 

The samples are tested using HVI (high volume instrument) machines. While this technology has been around since the 1980s, improvements have made this process more efficient and more precise. There are 37 HVI units in the Memphis office that consist of two components, one that tests for color and trash, the other that tests for fiber length, strength, uniformity, and micronaire. The entire process takes approximately 30 seconds per sample.   


At this point the samples are then reviewed visually by a human classer to determine if the samples contain any extraneous matter such as bark, grass, seed coat fragments, plastic, or any other non-leaf matter. 

Increased automation 

Due to the seasonal nature of the work, finding labor is often a problem for cotton classing offices. Rowland called it the biggest challenge. Since 2017, USDA has been increasing the automation of the grading process — installing a conveyance system which conditions samples to proper moisture levels quicker and automatically feeds 20 of the HVI units that perform instrument classification at a faster pace, while requiring fewer people to operate. 

“We can now fully process 140 to 150 samples per hour compared to 100 samples per hour, and we’re doing that with fewer people,” Rowland said. “Automation allows us to be much more efficient while maintaining accuracy and precision.”  

The Memphis office provided classification for 2.6 million samples in 2020, with over 65% of the crop utilizing the automation systems.  While cotton grading will probably always require some human input, USDA is transitioning to more automation and instrument classification in efforts to increase accuracy and efficiency. 

“We’re trying to automate the process as much as we can, from the time the samples arrive, until we share final results with the customer,” said Rowland. “That’s the future.” 

Using a Quality Management Program, the HVI and automated units, as well as manual classer performance are carefully monitored throughout each shift to ensure accuracy, and instrument calibration is performed every 24 hours. Using real time data, potential problems can be caught and corrected as quickly as they are detected. 

“A user of U.S. cotton can be very confident in the data coming out of our classing office because we do a tremendous number of internal checks to verify the accuracy of our instruments and processes,” Rowland added. 


Making biscuits 

After seeing the fast-paced technology in the Grading Division, the Standards Division is quite the contrast. Here Standards Assemblers make replications of the official cotton standards by hand. 

USDA established cotton grade standards in 1909 and by 1923, the USDA cotton standards were elevated to the fully internationally recognized standard. The Universal Cotton Standards are kept securely in a vault within the Memphis office. 

Each of the 15 physical grade standards is made up of six cotton samples called biscuits. The six biscuits in a grade standard display the range of color and leaf that is acceptable within each color grade. Skilled Standards Assemblers reproduce the biscuits for each official cotton grade. The biscuits are only made at the Memphis facility and are shipped from here around the world to be used as reference guides in cotton marketing.  


Every set of biscuits is reviewed multiple times — refined using tweezers to remove any fibers or extraneous matter that would compromise the standards. It’s a painstaking process, but one that is vital to the integrity of the entire cotton supply chain. The shelf life of a set of biscuits is only one year as exposure will cause the color to change. 

“We have to maintain very strict standards for the sake of our cotton growers, as well as our end users. A lot of countries use our standards because they know how reliable they are,” Cole said. “Our grading system is the best in the world.” 

About the Author(s)

Ginger Rowsey

Senior writer

Ginger Rowsey joined Farm Press in 2020, bringing more than a decade of experience in agricultural communications. Her previous experiences include working in marketing and communications with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. She also worked as a local television news anchor with the ABC affiliate in Jackson, Tennessee.

Rowsey grew up on a small beef cattle farm in Lebanon, Tennessee. She holds a degree in Communications from Middle Tennessee State University and an MBA from the University of Tennessee at Martin. She now resides in West Tennessee with her husband and two daughters.

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