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Grading haunts Delta cotton crop

What started out to be a season of promise has gone from bad to worse to even worse for Mid-South cotton growers who, after battling excessive rain and disease problems in September, are now experiencing high micronaire readings on some of their transgenic cotton varieties.

Extension cotton specialists from Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi report that from 30 to 50 percent of the bales in their states are testing 5.0 micronaire and higher, although they express some hope that readings will improve as later fields are harvested and ginned.

Some of that hope may have been wiped out Oct. 11 when heavy rains swept through the Mid-South, flooding module yards and exposing cotton that remained in the field to more weathering. Some estimates put the Mississippi Delta acreage that had not been harvested by the Oct. 11 date at 50 percent.

“So much of our cotton is coming in with a high mike and we're taking a heavy discount on it,” says Ellington Massey, a producer from Coahoma County, Miss. “Some farmers are being discounted $25 per bale. Most of the genetically engineered cotton is what's problematic. The conventional cotton seems to be okay, at least in this region of the Delta.”

Massey recently met with three other prominent farmers that use the same gin. All four men “were of the same accord on what we were looking at on our grade sheets. And from what I've heard this is happening all over the Delta.”

Mississippi farmers aren't too happy, says Will McCarty, Extension cotton specialist with Mississippi State University. Based on the latest report from the USDA-AMS Cotton Division classing offices, Mississippi's staple average is around 34. Almost 29 percent of the state's samples have been below 33.

“Our mike counts are around 4.9. Thus far, samples running 5.0 and higher have been measured in 52 percent of Mississippi's bales. That's distressing to say the least,” says McCarty.

In Arkansas, Bill Robertson, Extension cotton specialist with the University of Arkansas, knew micronaire counts weren't good, but didn't realize they were so bad until the last few days.

“Arkansas has got a little over 30 percent of our cotton in the discount range between 5.0 and 5.2,” he said. “Depending on length, that means a discount of 3 cents per pound. Taking all hits into consideration, we've got a big chunk of our cotton being docked 6 cents per pound. Last year, we weren't near that.”

One thing to remember: much of the cotton currently in the grading system is dryland. Robertson expects that grades will get better — at least slightly - as harvest moves into irrigated cotton.

“Regardless, the situation is very disturbing. I don't know that anyone in the state has put the mike counts up beside varieties yet. There's less than 20 percent of our acreage in conventional varieties. It might be hard to make a fair comparison with only that amount. Statewide we're at about 51 percent stacked, 18 percent conventional, 10 percent straight Roundup Ready, 8 percent straight Bollgard and 13 percent BXN,” says Robertson.

Robertson has spoken with many farmers on quality. A farmer south of Dumas, “told me his strength and staple were all right. His color grades on early cotton were terrible. That has to do with how far along it was when we got the heavy Labor Day rainfall. He told me he had a lot of 32s, 42s and is now getting into the whiter cotton. For whatever reason, we've got a bunch of discounted cotton. When almost a third is discounted and 10 percent is deeply discounted, that's trouble.”

Micronaire is a measure of the coarseness of a fiber. A fiber has layers of cellulose like rings on a tree. Mike is overwhelmingly determined by environment.

“Earlier, I thought this would be a primo crop. I wasn't seeing a lot of fruiting gaps and thought there were even demands on the plant. I certainly wasn't expecting to see high mike counts. A plant produces X amount of energy. If it only has a few bolls to concentrate on, it'll pack that energy into those few bolls. But with an even fruiting load, that energy is dispersed. I'm not sure what happened this year,” says Robertson.

John Barnett, Louisiana Extension cotton specialist, isn't sure either. All he knows is cotton farmers in his state are hurting.

“It's halfway through harvest here, and I've been surprised with the grades. I was expecting lower color grades than what we've been receiving. We've been getting mostly 41s.

“A lot of our crop rotted off the bottom of the plant, which is normally the more mature bolls. However, we're still running higher mike than I expected. We're seeing a noticeable percentage above 5.0 and a lot more that's in the 4.8 and 4.9 range.

“We're also running a little short staple. That isn't such a surprise, but I was hoping with the rainfall we had through the season that staple would be better,” says Barnett.

Has Barnett heard concerns about transgenic versus conventional grading discrepancies?

“I'm getting anecdotal evidence from farmers. But I don't have any replicated data to justify any statements along that line one-way or the other. I'm hoping we'll be able to get a handle on that question from our field trials. We do have several locations where I'll be able to get a look at that. We had many more fields to compare but the rains hit and ruined that plan. It's very difficult to gather data from farms because so little conventional cotton is now being planted.”

One thing Larry Creed, area director at the Dumas, Ark., USDA/AMS Cotton Classing Office, keeps hearing is farmers talking about the number of bales they're getting from a module. “Normally, farmers I speak with say they average between 13 and 15 bales per module. This year, that number has spiked to 20 to 22 bales,” says Creed (see accompanying story).

Barnett says there's no doubt farmers are getting more bales per module than in years past. The reason for that, he says, is seed quality is down and has deteriorated to the point where percent turnout is higher. Normally, turnout is in the mid-30's. Right now, farmers are seeing a lot of turnout in the high 30s.

“Seed has been ruined to the point where modules are being packed much more than you'd suspect just from eye-balling it. When you go to the gin, you find out the truth. We're also seeing smaller seed size.”

The crop is disappointing coming after such a promising season prior to the heavy rains, says Barnett. This is a bleak time for cotton farmers, and “I continue to hope for better days to arrive quickly.”

While he won't make a definitive statement on what he thinks is behind the quality problems in the Delta's cotton, McCarty will say that based on the growing season this year, “problems with high mike/short staple can't be blamed solely on the environment. The Labor Day rains had no effect on mike or staple.”

For a while now, Mississippi State's McCarty has been saying cotton quality concerns would eventually be of utmost importance. With discounts pummeling cotton farmers in an already depressed market, McCarty and other prognosticators have proven prophetic.

“I've been harping on quality for a long time. I'll certainly be looking into (the causes of this year's quality troubles) and suspect fellow cotton Extension specialists from surrounding states will be doing the same. This quality thing is of utmost concern. Quality will devastate the Delta if we don't get a quick handle on it. This is a serious matter and everyone had better pay attention,” says McCarty, Mississippi Extension cotton specialist.

No one is showing data yet, but perceptions are that transgenic cotton is being heavily discounted. Meanwhile, the small percentage of conventional cotton left in the Delta is skating through grading relatively unscathed.

Classing office: Grades improving

By David Bennett
Farm Press Editorial Staff

The beginning of cotton harvest was at the tail end of huge, late August rains. With an abundance of boll rot, seeds sprouting within bolls, hard lock and other problems, Delta cotton was in poor shape says Larry Creed, area director at the Dumas, Ark., Cotton Classing Office. Things have gotten better, he says, but not much.

“That rain contributed to a lot of off-white, grade 42 cotton. At least 60 percent of the cotton we were running was light spotted. We also began seeing a lot of seed coat fragments. We don't really have a way to measure that effectively but we saw that malady much more than usual,” says Creed.

There is some good news. Since late August, the Delta has had brilliant weather for harvesting cotton. There have been plenty of gentle breezes and low humidity that's helped brighten up much of the cotton that was discolored earlier. This respite in the weather has also allowed a lot more bolls to open up. Color numbers have reversed since early harvest — Creed says numbers show the region is now running close to 75 percent white cotton.

“However, we're continuing to see the highest percentage of high mike counts that we've seen in a long time. Our average at this office has been running 5.0. A 4.9 is as high as cotton can go without discount. When you're averaging 5.0 that means you're running 60 percent in a discount range.”

The silver lining on that cloud is over the last few days mike numbers have improved. That's probably because farmers are getting into different fields with later maturing cotton. On Oct. 6, Creed says cotton dropped below a 4.8 average for the first time.

“We're still running shorter lengths than we do typically. We should be running a 35 Staple average. We're currently slightly over 34. That's a full Staple length from where we should be.”

This is a pattern being seen across the Delta. Creed compares notes daily with colleagues at the Memphis and Rayville, La., classing offices. All three offices have been running numbers incredibly similar. Rayville has worse color than Dumas, but everything else tends to line up.

The Dumas station covers almost all the cotton in the Mississippi Delta. “Our northernmost gin is just outside Memphis and the southernmost gin is near Jackson. We pick up the southeast corner of Arkansas — from Pine Bluff to Lake Village.”

The Dumas station is currently running about 40,000 samples per day. Creed wants that number to be closer to 50,000.

“It's been strange this year. As far as we are into the harvesting season, we normally have 50,000 per day. This year, on a good day we'll run 42,000. It just seems that this year's crop is more spread out. We've got several gins that just started ginning last week. One of them is in Tallahatchie County (Miss.) and another is right near Indianola, Miss. It's just an odd year.”

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