Farm Progress

Chinese set 3-year goal of better cotton than SJV

Dan Bryant

October 7, 2000

6 Min Read

Growers in Xinjiang, one of China's three largest cotton-producing regions, have set a goal in the next three years of producing cotton of higher quality than the San Joaquin Valley.

That's the word from Ji Zhang, a representative of the Paul Reinhart Group in Beijing, China. "Xinjiang people know much about the SJV and they have set a target to produce better cotton than the SJV and make more profit," he said during a recent conference of the Western Cotton Shippers Association in Fresno.

To achieve their goal, the Chinese have quality obstacles to overcome. On average, Ji said, 80 percent of Xinjiang cotton is grade 129 good to middling and 229 strict middling, staple 1-1/8 inches", strength about 23, and micronaire 3.0 to 4.6.

Although leaf content and fiber damage are less in the largely hand-picked cotton, foreign matter from hair, feathers, and the variety of bagging used tends to be slightly higher.

"In general," Ji said, "most mills like Xinjiang cotton for its good color, full staple, less leaf and lower foreign matter content, but they also complain about low strength and the stickiness problem."

"Free buying and selling prices will make Chinese cotton prices fairly competitive to the world," he predicted. "However, further measures are necessary to protect the interests of cotton growers and provide a hedging price for the cotton industry."

China's new national cotton exchange set up last year, he added, is successfully conducting auctions of state reserve and some old-crop stocks.

Form cooperatives "The Chinese government," he said, "is also calling on farmers to jointly form cooperatives and associations so they can protect their own interests by themselves."

Once China enters the World Trade Organization, Ji speculated, domestic markets will open wider and foreign companies will be allowed to participate in all segments of the domestic cotton business.

"The ideal situation," he said, "is to have cotton imports and exports co-exist, and hopefully this will be realized soon."

Production of cotton in Xinjiang, this year in excess of 6.2 million bales, has catapulted to more than 17 times from the output of 1980-81.

Buttressing the increase is the province's favorable growing climate. Although yields of more than 2.5 bales per acre are considered high, Ji said research teams have coaxed 3,100-pound yields from small plots.

Other positives are plenty of arable land, an improved procurement price (set by the autonomous provincial government at 40.5 cents U.S. per pound in 1999-00), government supports, and a low population density to limit competition from grain and other food crops.

China is the world's largest producer and consumer of cotton. Its production reached a record 28.7 million bales in 1984-85, and its highest consumption was 29.8 million bales in 1991-92.

By comparison, production in 1999 for the U.S. was 16.3 million bales of Upland and 674,000 bales of Pima. California output was 1.6 million bales of Upland and 603,000 bales of Pima.

Xinjiang, situated in the northwestern part of China, borders Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan to the west and Russia and Mongolia to the north. Its area of 625,000 square miles makes up one-sixth of China's landmass and is four times the size of California. With a population of more than 16 million, it is also China's richest region in strategic minerals.

The province, where the climate averages about 80 degrees in the summer with large swings between daytime and nighttime temperatures, has 8.3 million acres under cultivation, of which cotton claims about 2.5 million acres.

China imported cotton varieties during the 1940s and 1950s but since has developed some 20 varieties currently in use. Varieties having higher strength and yields are in development.

Rainfall in the province ranges from little more than 1.5 inches in the southern portion to about 6 inches in the north, so the crop is entirely irrigated, some by sprinkler or drip, but mostly by furrow.

Water supplies are from snow runoff through dams and reservoirs in the Tianshan Mountains. Annual water costs per acre are the equivalent of $15 U.S.

Insect pressures Ji, a graduate of Beijing University who joined the Reinhart group in 1984, said aphids, bollworms, and spider mites are the major cotton pests. They are controlled mainly by plowing and irrigating fields before winter. Beneficial insects are used and insecticides are used as necessary when insect pressures are high.

Virtually all the cotton is picked by hand two or three times, using labor from nearly one million laborers brought in from other provinces for the harvest season running from late August to December. Picking 100 pounds of seed cotton per day earns a worker the equivalent of about $3 U.S.

Adjustments are being made to row configurations, defoliation, and lint cleaning to accommodate machine harvesting, which to date has been on an experimental basis with a few imported John Deere spindle pickers. Planners say, however, that mechanization will be necessary to develop the industry.

The Chinese rely on saw gins, manufactured domestically, for all Upland cotton. Seed-cotton dryers are rare, so cotton is dried in the sun to bring moisture below 10 percent, and ginning must be done by December to avoid problems with higher humidity. Bales are usually stored outdoors.

They use roller gins for extra-long staple cotton, such as their Xinjiang 146. ELS production swings widely, ranging from 8,000 tons to 60,000 tons in recent seasons. This year it may reach 50,000 tons.

Typical weight of cotton-cloth-wrapped bales is about 180 pounds because they are handled manually. Some gins, however, have already adopted presses for the 480-pound package for export, and others are planning to convert.

All land in the province is owned by the state, and rented in modest acreages by farmers, although they can rent additional land, up to 100 acres.

Ji said per acre production costs are between $360 and $400 U.S. For the more modest yielding fields with 1,070 pounds per acre, costs come in at 34 to 37 cents per pound. The national average income per acre in 1997 for a Chinese cotton grower, who rotates three seasons of cotton with a season of fallow, tomato, wheat, rice, or sunflower, was $260 U.S.

Getting back to the quality issues confronting Xinjiang cotton, Ji, a graduate of the American Cotton Shippers Association's Cotton Institute in Memphis, said the Chinese government's cotton standards established in 1972 were limited. They specified color, staple and preparation but not micronaire, strength, or stickiness.

Consequently, farmers and researchers concentrated on color, staple, and yield, all to the detriment of spinning qualities. Serious stickiness problems damaged the reputation of lint from the southern part of Xinjiang.

Stickiness is mainly caused by aphid honeydew, but natural plant sugars, promoted by the variance in day and night temperatures in the region, aggravate the problem.

Stickiness, compounded by shortcomings in strength, caused Xinjiang cotton to be sold at a significant discount, even when compared with fiber from CIS nations, during the 1998-99 crop year.

Government officials, after repeated appeals from the Chinese textile industry, decided to update their cotton standards to meet those of the market economy.

"As of Sept. l, 1999," Ji said, "new standards were adopted to include micronaire, foreign matter, and staple differences. However, a strength standard is still not included, due to a shortage of testing equipment."

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