Seed size, contamination and labor top the list of concerns for cotton ginners across the Cotton Belt.
National Cotton Ginners Association President Curtis Stewart, Spade, Texas, focused on these issues during his address to the Southern Cotton Ginners Association's recent annual meeting in Memphis, Tenn.
Seed size, Stewart said, "affects a ginner's bottom line."
Newer varieties have focused on improved yield and quality with little regard to seed size, he added. "We need a better understanding of lint-to-seed yield ratio and how it affects our industry. We have a misconception regarding seed size and turnout. No ginner wants to go backwards on quality and yield. Why can't we select [variety] trial traits that give us both larger cottonseed size as well as high yield?"
The National Cotton Council's Cottonseed Quality Committee last summer offered three recommendations, subsequently adopted by the Council, Stewart said.
One is that seed size should be a factor that breeders should considere when developing new varieties, "but not at the expense of yield, quality and vigor.
"Second, research the economic effect of seed size on ginning, processing and feeding and communicate those findings back to the industry.
"Third, seek opportunities to raise awareness.
"It's highly likely that this committee will meet in the future and continue to have dialogue to review and address the cottonseed issues."
Contamination, Stewart said, is another industry-wide issue that threatens the reputation of U.S. cotton.
"The National Ginners Association has continued its efforts to eliminate all forms of plastic in the gin," Stewart said.
Educational efforts, including "multi-faceted videos," offer ginners opportunities to train employees on how to manage round modules.
Training, he said, is crucial for "everyone who runs a picker, works with module staging, drives a module truck and handles module wrapping at the gin.
"I hope you take the opportunity to show this video. Cotton producers and equipment manufacturers, not just the ginners, must be involved to help reach our goal of zero contamination."
Growers will play a role, he added.
"Growers have to do a better job of getting the plastic out of the fields. The unfortunate fact is that plastic is here to stay; it's not going away."
He said several systems under development detect plastic contamination in the gin. So far, neither USDA-ARS nor Cotton Incorporated is involved in developing these systems, he added.
"But during our good conference at Beltwide, I recommended they take on several of these research objectives. Chris Delhom, the interim manager at the gin lab at Stoneville, is involved in the ongoing research on plastic contamination."
He said the National Ginners Association also supports other cotton quality issues. He said restored funding to the three USDA-ARS gin labs opens the door for increased staffing and research opportunities.
Stewart said labor continues to pose concerns for all aspects of agriculture, including cotton gins. But a recent court ruling eases some restrictions on H-2A labor used to transport cotton modules from the field to the gin.
He explained that last year the U.S. Department of Labor denied an application from a module transport company that had used H-2A workers for the past 19 years. The department based its denial on the presumption that transportation was not considered agriculture labor.
The company appealed to the National Ginners Association for help. Stewart said the Department of Labor's reading of what constitutes agriculture labor was wrong.
"We have a direct line that says all services performed in connection with the ginning of cotton should be under agricultural labor. This includes the movement of cottonseed cotton from the field to the gin as well as other hauling. The essential part of the harvest should be eligible for the H-2A program, whether by the gins or by a contractor should make no difference."
He said the denial cited a July 2019 administrative law judge decision which had nothing to do with ginning, but labor used to haul melons from the field to the packing shed.
"The National Ginners Association and several other member organizations, including the Southern Ginners Association, were concerned that ignoring the broader definition of agricultural labor and the Department of Labor focusing on its definition of agriculture set a dangerous precedent for other related decisions."
They took the issue to court and prevailed in the first hearing, but the Department of Labor appealed and had the decision reversed. The agriculture interests appealed again and in October the judge " ruled that her first interpretation was the correct decision."
The delay had repercussions, however. The initial H-2A request was for 14 drivers to start in September. The hauling company received three drivers Nov. 18.
Stewart said the case also accrued hefty legal fees. "We continue to monitor a number of labor issues and regulations that are either in the pipeline or in the process of being rewritten and in various states are being implemented."
Stewart encouraged ginners to complete the USDA-ARS 2019 cost of ginning survey. "The survey is conducted every three years and is used to identify historical trends, including incorporation of new technologies that help maintain or reduce ginning costs. The survey is now being conducted online for easier access for ginners."
He also acknowledged the importance of the cotton gin schools.
"For the past 35 years the National Cotton Ginners Association has managed all three gin schools and the gin certificate program. It's vital that gin employees are well-trained. The three gin schools are fulfilling the need for training competent workers."
He said ongoing assistance of USDA and the gin equipment manufacturers will be important to continue providing support. "The three gin schools just last year had well over 300 participants. In fact, the Stoneville school had the largest attendance since 1998, and I want to thank the Southern ginners for your continued support. The gin schools' ginner certification program helps prepare the industry for the future."