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Cotton research: Quality problems elusive

Cotton quality problems relating to short fiber content and length uniformity may have little to do with ginning and a lot to do with variety and environmental influences, a Cotton Incorporated researcher says.

“There's nothing we can hang our hat on that's happening in the gin to cause this,” says Roy Cantrell, vice president of agricultural research for the producer/importer-funded cotton research and promotion organization. “It's going to be tough to blame ginners for this,” he said at the annual meeting of the Cotton Board at Seattle.

In a meeting of the Agriculture and Fiber Quality Research Committee, discussing quality problems with the 2003 Georgia crop, he was asked about allegations that problems stem from a particular ginning system.

“Looking at data from the 2003 crop, I've not seen any evidence that this system contributes to the amount of short fiber content,” Cantrell says.

“We've looked at data collected by the National Cotton Council and HVI testing recaps from 18 gins in Georgia, some targeted as so-called problem gins, and no one could identify any relationship between the ginning system — or for that matter, other ginning practices — that contributed to short fiber content and length uniformity.”

The problem, Cantrell says, is not directly one of short fiber. “When we hear comments about short fiber or length uniformity, the blame is always, ‘You're overginning the cotton.’ That definitely is not the case in Georgia. That can be put to rest; they're definitely not overginning the cotton. Then the question becomes, are they underginning the cotton? It's almost like micronaire: you get beaten up if it's too high and you get beaten up if it's too low.

“We just don't know the answer yet. We hope we'll have a clearer picture after the '04 crop is analyzed. We'll be looking at HVI samples and APHIS length distribution data. We're also looking microscopically at yarn from the mills to see where breaks occurred, where they had problems. Is trash related to the problem?

“Everyone knows Georgia had an excellent cotton year in 2003, which is why this has been such a kick in the gut for the state's producers.

“But I haven't had anybody show me data that use of a specific ginning system has anything to do with short fiber content. Of all the HVI samples that have been looked at from those 18 Georgia gins, there is as much short fiber content variability within gins as there is between gins. We can't even say a particular gin point is creating short fiber or length uniformity problems — it's across gins.”

Asked if variety may be a factor and a perception of quality problems with the Mid-South crop as well, Cantrell said, “There's as much effort going into trying to determine if this is variety-related as there is to whether it's ginning-related. But we wouldn't be having this discussion if Georgia and much of the Mid-South were growing an average staple of 35 or 36 instead of 34.”

It's “very common,” he says, for varieties to interact with the conditions under which they're grown, “and some do it more than others.” Referring to a popular variety in 2003 and 2004, he says, “Its growth pattern and the way it produces cotton may make it more prone to interacting with the environment so it would behave one way in Oklahoma, another way in Georgia.”

The problem with short fibers, or length uniformity, Cantrell says, is that that alone is not the sole cause of problems in spinning.

“It's a major contributing cause, and that's where the difficulty comes in. It interacts with other things — whether it's trash or other unknown factors we're not currently measuring. We rely on factors we can measure well, and certainly the ultimate test is ends-down in the mill. When they get bales that they say cause ends down and show us yarn where it occurs, we have to take that seriously.

“There is a problem that relates to short fiber, but in terms of research and doing something to minimize the problem, there are different ways to approach it. We're just not good at measuring short fiber content.”

Cantrell says the industry wants HVI testing to be predictive of end product quality, “but in research that's not the case.

“HVI is very powerful in terms of marketing and describing the value of the cotton to the textile industry and the trade. But in terms of research — variables such as ginning, defoliation, and some of the newer parameters of fiber that we're looking at now, such as length distribution, short fiber content, and variation in fiber fineness and maturity — we still need research tools for better ways of looking at fiber.

“So that's what a lot of our farm-to-mill research is focusing on: how can we better evaluate the fiber in research and know how it's going to impact the spinning process and end product quality?”

Cotton Incorporated researchers and technicians are “constantly talking to the mills and listening to what they need, and trying to come up with the technology to measure those needs,” Cantrell says.

“The agricultural research division probably more than ever has very close ties with the fiber quality research division. I see us getting more involved with fiber research in terms of spinning, so our industry can take a more proactive approach in looking at fiber quality.”

Cotton Board members gave approval to a $10.53 million research budget for 2005; of that, $8.54 million is for agricultural research programs and operations, and $1.99 million is for fiber quality research programs and operations.

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