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Cotton quality improvements will boost competitivenessCotton quality improvements will boost competitiveness

Cotton producers "need to look the planting seed companies in the eye and tell them that U.S. cotton quality must improve — that if they give you yield and quality, it will increase demand for your cotton,” said Robert Nichols, senior director of research at Cotton Incorporated.

January 19, 2011

5 Min Read

From an industry strategy standpoint, “cotton fiber quality must increase” in order to boost its competitiveness, says Bob Nichols, senior director of research at Cotton Incorporated.

“You, as producers need to look the planting seed companies in the eye and tell them that U.S. cotton quality must improve — that if they give you yield and quality, it will increase demand for your cotton,” he said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation.

“We are competing in east Asia with cotton that is longer and finer than ours, chiefly because it is hand-picked. We are the supplier of last resort in Asia because Indian cotton is longer and finer and has a 7-cent differential for transportation. We sell behind them.

“We need to convince the planting seed companies of a few simple facts: They make money in the U.S. — not in Brazil, and they may or may not make money in India, where it’s still a shaky situation for them.

“It is manifestly in the interest of planting seed companies to breed quality into U.S. cultivars so we will be the predominant producer, because we’re the only ones who reasonably pay them for their seed.

“I think this is a major issue as we move forward. We have to communicate to the companies that quality is a strategic issue for U.S. cotton and it will help insure the industry’s future.”

Responding to an producer observation that cotton marketers and mills have said they want higher staple, but haven’t been willing to pay growers for producing it, Nichols said, “This is one of the most fundamental questions in the cotton industry today.

“Fiber length is going up, which is good,” he says, but the shift from the majority of U.S. cotton being used domestically to most of it being used in Asia has created a dilemma.

“U.S. mills understood how to run 34 staple length; Asian mills don’t — they need 35 staple length to run at the same efficiency as U.S. mills.

“The cotton loan chart doesn’t adequately convey value, because everyone chooses varieties for yield and avoidance of discounts. If you generalize this behavior, you cap the value of quality in U.S. cotton.”

Questioned about the increasing value of cottonseed at a time when varieties are producing fewer, smaller seeds, Nichols says this has come about as a result of growers’ ongoing quest for varieties with higher lint turnout.

“Are there any companies breeding varieties that produce more seed? No. Is there research that addresses how the cotton plant partitions between lint, seed, oil, etc.? Yes.

“In a paper, Craig Bednarz and I have shown that over a 20-year period there has been a progressive move by planting seed companies toward varieties with smaller seeds — mainly because they have seen lint and turnout as the primary income stream.

When you select for turnout, you’re indirectly selecting against seed, and the companies know this. That’s what we’ve basically taught the planting seed companies to do.

Do we know how to breed the other way, for more seed? Yes. Basic research in cotton physiology tells us how to manipulate that selection — but at the present most planting seed companies are selecting for small seed because it results in higher turnout and they see lint as the primary income stream.”

Is there potential for utilization of gin trash and cotton stalks for generating energy?

Nichols notes that Tom Wedegaertner, director of cottonseed research and marketing has studied the issue.

“Gin trash, yes; cotton stalks, no. Gin trash is at the gin already, but we’d have to go get the stalks, and the collection and transportation looks to be economically prohibitive.

“There’s also a question of how much nutrients you’d remove by taking away the stalks rather than incorporating them; they’ve got a lot of potassium.

“The use of gin trash for energy actually looks pretty good. A Texas study suggests that it would take about a $2 million investment to wholly utilize gin trash as an energy source at the gin, which would then create biochar, which could be an organic amendment that does include potassium. I think this has some potential and should be further evaluated.”

Water and nitrogen are going to be “really key issues” in cotton production over the next decade, Nichols says.

“When energy costs increase, nitrogen costs are going to increase, too. I don’t think there’s any question that we’re going to have to be a lot more efficient in our use of nitrogen. Overall, in cotton production we’ve seen N rates go down and yields go up, but we’re going to have to do even better, and we’re looking at ways to accomplish this.”

Cotton Incorporated’s ag research efforts are directed heavily toward increasing profits for growers and increasing consumption of U.S. cotton, Nichols says, and include support for 250 academic cooperators on dirt-to-gin innovations involving 403 research projects.

“We’re focusing on production efficiency, variety improvement (a major initiative for a long time, with a lot of work on cotton genetics), sustainability, cottonseed, and harvest efficiency.”

Noting “a tremendous number of complaints about tech fees on cotton seed,” Nichols says, “there is a kind of underground movement to look again at conventional varieties. There are some varieties coming out of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas that we’re looking at.

“Louisiana 17 and 35 are conventional varieties that are superior in several key fiber qualities to any conventional cottons now on the market. The same is true of Arkansas 48, which is going commercial this year through the University of Arkansas.

“There has been much interest in this because of the problems of pigweed control in Arkansas with glyphosate.

Our analyses show these varieties are really outstanding products in terms of fiber quality.

“We’re also doing a lot of work with uses other than lint.

If we’re able to register and commercialize a low gossypol variety, it will open even more doors for profit from cottonseed. This is a major scientific breakthrough.”

Cotton Incorporated’s cottonseed marketing program has “significantly increased the value of cottonseed and returns to producers,” Nichols says.

Product profitability programs include research in yield enhancement, pest control, cottonseed, precision agriculture, a major variety initiative, and environmental concerns — “something of which we’re all going to have to be more aware.

“We also have studies in nitrogen research, lint cleaning, harvesting, risk management, precision ag, insect/weed management, and sustainability. We’re the only commodity board that has actively managed research with a professional staff to prioritize that research in order to most effectively use your money.

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