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'Too few carrots, too many sticks'

“When producers see the schedule of premiums and discounts for what they produce, they mostly see discounts,” said Owen Gwathmey, an agronomist with the University of Tennessee’s West Tennessee Experiment Station in Jackson.

“Moreover when we see the magnitude of the premiums and discounts they face, we see there are a very few small carrots and very big sticks. The premiums are generally less than 100 basis points and are few and far between. In fact, in the 2001 crop, there wasn’t a premium for micronaire. Discounts can range up to 11 cents.”

Gwathmey noted that industry confusion over the importance of cotton quality is nothing knew and has prompted a number of notable farmer observations over the years, such as this one by an anonymous farmer, “The best quality to have is high yield.”

Or as the late Jack Hamilton, a Lake Providence, La., cotton producer and former National Cotton Council president, once said, ‘There’s not enough incentive in the marketplace to entice the production of high quality, low-yielding cotton.”

Each year produces a different problem with quality. In the north Delta in 2000, the fiber quality which represented the highest percentage of discounts was strength, followed by staple and color. In 2001, high mike was number one, followed by staple and color.

There are two broad tools that producers have to improve fiber quality, noted Gwathmey. “One, they can select high quality varieties and two, manage the environment of each plant to make it perform and reduce variances.”

On the other hand, fiber properties don’t respond in like ways to these tools. For example, variety selection is much less important for staple length than supplying adequate potassium and water to the plant, according to Gwathmey.

An analysis of the fiber quality in Arkansas, where about 50 percent of cotton acreage is irrigated, versus Tennessee, where less that 5 percent of cotton is irrigated, illustrates the point.

The comparison showed that in Arkansas, only 10 percent of the cotton bales produced had a staple length discount in 2001. Meanwhile, in Tennessee, 37 percent of the cotton bales were discounted for staple length.

“If you don’t have irrigation, consider limiting planting on droughty, non-irrigated sites,” Gwathmey said. “We could also maintain higher potassium fertility to see if it doesn’t alleviate some of those problems.

“Potassium deficiencies can occur especially in determinate varieties which are fruiting up at the same time, and many bolls compete for a limited pool of plant potassium,” Gwathmey said.

The fiber property of strength is correlated strongly to variety selection, while micronaire has a strong relationship with where a variety is grown.

For example, according to a Mid-South/Southeast comparison of several popular cotton varieties compiled by David Guthrie, director of technical services, Stoneville Pedigreed Seed, Co., “micronaire on average was 4.34 in the north and 4.67 in the south. These are the same varieties. The only difference is location.”

Interestingly, there are also regional differences in the way varieties perform, noted Guthrie. For example, micronaire in the Southeast tends to be lower than micronaire in the Mid-South. In addition, earlier-maturing varieties tended to have higher yield, higher mike and shorter staple than later maturing varieties, according to the comparison.

Irrigated cotton in the comparison, according to Guthrie, “was a little bit longer than dryland cotton.”

To improve quality, “growers need to select varieties with the highest value to them,” Guthrie said. “But whatever that value is, I think they need to minimize discounts.”

Another question on the minds of producers after the 2001 season: “What’s all the textile mill fuss about micronaire?”

According to Judd Briggs, project leader, fiber processing, Cotton Incorporated, there are some benefits of high micronaire to the end user including higher fiber maturity, lower propensity for white specks, lower nep levels and deeper depth of shade during the dyeing process.

In certain applications, high micronaire, “can be a beautiful fit,” Briggs said. “It may take moving some product to another mill. But it can work.”

But high micronaire can also cause problems in yarn production. A study comparing various blends of high micronaire (5.2) and low micronaire (4.0) indicated that as the percentage of high micronaire in yarn increased toward 100 percent, downtime increased and yarn strength decreased. The result of the latter is a weaker fabric.

So why don’t textile mills insist on a more realistic premium and discount schedule? Apparently, the solution isn’t that simple.

Gene Fry, director, cotton operations, Parkdale Mills, is one textile mill representative feeling the frustration from producers who raise high-yielding cottons with less than optimum fiber qualities. Regarding a specific variety that caused quite a few problems in his mill because of high mike, he said, “I can’t pay enough of a premium to compensate the producer for not growing it.”

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