A fragmented harvest for cotton growers

Brad Haire brad-haire-cotton-bales-picked-field-Fla.jpg
We've had outbreaks of seed coat fragments in cotton before, but 2020 proved again special.

Throughout the Southeast gins finish ginning good cotton, but one thing hindered some locations. It got worse as harvest progressed.

Last fall, we started following the problem when sample results from the USDA classing office in Georgia showed unusually high levels of seed coat fragments.

We expected to see more seed fragments than typical in 2020, but the extent of them along the Southeastern gulf coast startled.

We've had outbreaks of seed coat fragments before, but 2020 proved, again, to be special: Extreme rain, late-season humidity and warmer temperatures, along with fields drying off followed again by more rain set a nice stage for the problem. The data from weather stations show the above-average numbers, especially rainfall totals between Sept. 1 and the end of the year. You could see seed sprouting in fields.

The issue has been on the industry's radar, and progress to manage it has been made. If not handled correctly, the fragments challenge mills. Since 2003, Cotton Incorporated has sponsored a research program with the USDA gin labs, Texas Tech University and North Carolina State University to find solutions to the problem.

"We have learned a lot over that period of time. … And there is strong evidence that what we are seeing this year (2020) is highly weather related," said Ed Barnes, senior director of agricultural and environmental research at Cotton Incorporated.

"I have heard a few theories about what caused SCF problems this year beyond weather and I can dismiss a few. One theory to dismiss is that the Macon classing office made too many SCF calls. The USDA-AMS classing system has a very robust set of checks and balances," he said.

Cotton Incorporated Fiber Processing lab purchased four bales from Georgia that had SCF calls, he said, and found the bales full of seed fragments. Cotton Incorporated textile experts are working with the purchased bales to develop methods to help mills handle the seed coat fragments in the 2020 cotton.

Was it a variety issue? There is no conclusive evidence for that this year. "The fact that there were not problems in South Carolina and North Carolina where some of the same varieties are grown reinforces the hypothesis that weather was the dominant factor," he said.

Growers in the area needed a chance to deliver a good crop in 2020. But it's hard to hit every lick every season, especially on matters outside a grower's control. And weather, especially harvest time weather, hasn't cooperated in several years for many across the region.

The cotton crops in north Florida, south Alabama and south Georgia in August looked strong. High yields and quality were in sight. A cynical person might say that kind of cotton now seems to attract overzealous weather.

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