Budget increases over the past few years turned the fate of the USDA-ARS cotton ginning research units in Stoneville, Miss., Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Lubbock, Texas, from potential shutdown fears to exciting new research possibilities.
Last year, we talked to Chris Delhom, USDA-ARS research materials engineer, Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans, about new opportunities. We thought an update would be in order for 2021 and asked Delhom and Joe Thomas, research leader, ARS Stoneville, Miss., Cotton Ginning Research Unit, about ongoing and planned gin lab research efforts.
Q. Last year we talked about the potential updates at the USDA cotton gin lab at Stoneville, Miss., made possible by an increased budget, doubled over the past few years. Possibilities included adding staff. How has staffing improved since we talked last year?
Chris Delhom (CD): We have made considerable progress beginning with hiring Dr. Cody Blake in April as a research scientist and hiring Joe Thomas as the permanent research leader after a 47-year career in the design and manufacture of ginning equipment. Most recently, we brought Dr. Sean Donohoe on board as research engineer. We are still looking to hire at least one more engineer and possibly some post-doctoral research associates.
Q. We also talked about some physical plant renovations. What has been accomplished so far? What is on the list for future upgrades?
(CD): We have been able to continue with some renovation and modernization, following all federal and state COVID-19 guidelines and safety protocols. We have a new environmentally controlled test lab up and running, new ovens for moisture measurement work, upgraded our compressed air system, modernized our vehicle fleet to better fit the mission, and expanded our fabrication facilities to facilitate design and construction of equipment needed for research.
Q. A key issue across the U.S. cotton industry for the past few years has been plastic contamination. How is the gin lab addressing that issue?
Joe Thomas (JT): Contamination by plastics has been a hot topic in the cotton industry ever since the introduction of the round module wrap. The industry experienced plastic contamination prior to its introduction but not on the scale we currently see. Roughly 80 percent of all plastic contamination complaints received from textile mills are for the module wrap.
Recent introduction of less robust wrap materials has made the issue more severe. The effort to find a solution is industry wide. All three cotton ARS gin labs, plus the Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans, are working together on multiple solutions in collaboration with several universities, research providers, industry support organizations, manufacturers and industry stakeholders.
A more recent issue impacting the southeastern cotton producers is seed coat fragments (SCF) in the lint. SCF are considered extraneous matter in our classing standards. It is a manual call by the cotton classer, whereas length, strength, uniformity, micronaire, color, leaf and trash are determined by machine (HVI). SCF calls for the 2020 southeast crop are at an all-time high.
Although the occurrence of SCF is not a new phenomenon, for U.S. cottons, it has been negligible in previous years. The consensus is 2020 was a weather- related event in the Southeast, which contributed to the significant increase in SCF. That may be the easy answer but may not be entirely correct. Only time and research will tell.
Q. What projects are you undertaking or considering to improve gin efficiency?
(JT): An area of growth is automation and utilization of artificial intelligence (AI) in ginning processes, especially in the area of robotics. Automation and robotics will become more crucial to cotton ginning as time goes on. Labor costs and speed of operation drive this issue.
Because labor costs are so high, having skilled people to operate ginning systems is crucial. The skills required must match the current high-speed mode of operation, making the human/machine interface (HMI) a critical component of the skill set.
The human element will never be removed and to that end we must hone the skills of those tasked with managing the modern cotton ginning operation. Developing and transferring the technology and knowledge required to operate such an enterprise is yet another growth area for research.
Q. Other key research efforts?
(JT): Saw ginning is synonymous with high-capacity ginning of upland cottons (fuzzy seed). Roller ginning has, until now, been reserved for extra-long staple (ELS) cottons, primarily the Pima varieties grown in the west and far-western U.S.
Roller ginning is a slower and more costly method of ginning cotton made feasible by the premium price received for the ELS cotton. High-speed roller ginning, developed by the USDA Southwestern Cotton Ginning Research Lab in Las Cruces, New Mexico, has narrowed the cost difference between saw ginning and roller ginning of upland cottons but more research is needed to make it a feasible alternative.
The advantages over saw ginning include longer fiber, less short fiber and fewer neps (small tangles and knots created by mechanical action).
Currently, some western upland varieties are roller ginned but only because a merchant or mill is paying a premium for roller ginned upland. For roller ginning to be accepted as a commercial equivalent to saw ginning, it will have to process the same cotton in the same amount of time at the same or less cost per bale. Otherwise, it is a non-starter.
Roller ginning of upland cotton varieties is a key area of growth in research for the Stoneville Gin Lab.
(CD): The Gin Lab has been leading a new ARS initiative called Partnerships for Data Innovation (PDI). This effort is a joint-ARS, Cotton Incorporated, and university initiative to reduce the time researchers spend handling data, while also making it faster and easier than ever for us to get our findings into the hands of our stakeholders.
A major drive in PDI is to connect datasets; for example, variety trial results can be linked to weather and soils databases to better understand the results and provide public dashboards where stakeholders can easily find the relevant results.
Q. Can you talk a bit about industry support for your research?
(CD): The Delta Council, National Cotton Council, and Cotton Incorporated, as well as all the gin associations, have been very supportive of our research. The Delta Council and National Cotton Council have been instrumental in conveying the impact of the Stoneville Gin Lab.
Cotton Incorporated supports our research by providing a variety of resources to help us achieve our goals, and all the entities together are instrumental in helping us connect with our stakeholders.
This industry support helps us not only to understand the needs of the industry, but also to provide resources for us to collect real world data, and then get those findings to the industry where we can have maximum impact as efficiently as possible.