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High-moisture bales hurt U.S. cotton

Cotton bales with very high moisture content have the potential to damage the reputation of U.S. cotton with foreign customers, a cotton merchant says.

The high moisture levels are “clearly and unequivocally bad for the spinning value” of those bales, Jerry Marshall, Cargill Cotton senior vice president at Cordova, Tenn., told members of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association at their annual meeting at Memphis.

“There has been a lot of publicity and attention to new systems for gins that add moisture to the fiber before the bale is pressed, and some claims that that higher moisture content not only improves a grower's returns, but that it improves the spinning characteristics of the cotton.”

While the first part “is no doubt correct,” Marshall says, “I don't think the second part is accurate.

“While there is probably nothing wrong with cotton at 6 percent to 7 percent moisture,” he says, too much moisture can cause quality problems and leave a bad impression with foreign buyers.

“I don't think the problems kick in until it gets higher than 7 percent,” he says.

That has been corroborated in studies done by Stanley Anthony, supervisor of the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Cotton Ginning Laboratory at Stoneville, Miss.

In studies going back to 1957, in which varying amounts of water were added to cotton bales before packaging, it was found that above 8 percent moisture, problems occurred from reductions in color, increases in microbial activity, increases in short fiber content and neps, and decreases in HVI color. Reflectance and yellowness values also indicated that bales became darker and more yellow as moisture increased.

Because of those adverse changes, Anthony has said, “I think we need to be very careful in adding water to cotton. Somebody could end up having to eat some of it.”

Marshall, in his remarks at Memphis, noted that much of the world likes to buy U.S. cotton because of the availability of bale-by-bale HVI data.

“But I believe too much moisture brings the integrity of those data into question.”

As an example, he cited a sale his company made last year to a very large textile mill in northern India.

“They'd purchased over 10,000 bales of high-grade, long-staple cotton from our company, from which they intended to make a high-quality yarn.

“Shortly after the first shipments arrived in February, they phoned, raising Cain about the color of the cotton, and even went so far as to accuse us of being dishonest in shipping them cotton.”

Marshall says he obtained a USDA-certified printout of the original government classing to prove to the buyer “we had shipped him exactly what we had sold.” Even then, the buyer was still unhappy.

Marshall made a trip to the mill and upon arrival, “They showed me sample after sample of cotton that was so spotted in color I suspected they weren't being completely forthright. Sensing my skepticism, we went to the warehouse where the cotton was stored, and they let me select a few bales at random for them to sample.”

Samples from most of the bales, he says, looked as they were supposed to look. But one was like the spotted samples he'd seen earlier.

With gin bale numbers in hand, Marshall phoned his Memphis office to have them double-check the USDA classing.

“All had been classed as 21s by USDA in October 2001. But when we checked the landed weight, the spotted bales had lost considerably more weight than those that still looked like 21s.

“I know it wouldn't earn me an A in scientific methodology, but from what I saw, I'm personally completely convinced those bales had ‘way too much moisture in them when they left the gin. In just a few months, the quality of that cotton had deteriorated a lot.”

The point being, Marshall says: “Because we need to export about 60 percent of the U.S. cotton crop each year, we have to be very, very careful about doing anything that could call into question the integrity of the USDA classing process.”

U.S. cotton thus far has been successful in garnering a disproportionate share of the world market, he says. “The reason is not that we produce the highest-quality cotton in the world — rather, we do it with reliability.

“Our merchants and co-ops honor their contracts, even when the market goes ‘way up after the sale. We do it with predictability. We export cotton on time, every time, 12 months a year. And we do it because of HVI data.

“We are the only exporter that can provide independently-assessed, bale-by-bale data on our cotton, and that has great value to the buyer.”

But, Marshall says, if the HVI data are unreliable, if the color of the cotton changes within the course of a single season, those data have no value to the spinner.

“In fact, they're worth less than nothing, because using bad data can cause a mill to produce poor yarn and fabric it can't sell. That being the case, why not buy the higher-quality West African, Chinese, or Uzbek cotton they're regularly offered?”

In the world market, Marshall says, U.S. cotton “competes against everybody else, and I cannot emphasize strongly enough: anything we do that causes a buyer to worry about the quality of U.S. cotton is a big mistake.”

e-mail: [email protected].

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