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By Alfred Dockery, Technical Editor

Future Cottons

Alfred Dockery, Technical Editor

A quiet revolution has been taking place in America’s cotton fields. With the launch of Bollgard in 1996, Roundup Ready in ’97, and Bollgard and Roundup Ready (BG/RR) in ’98, biotechnology has produced tools that are very advantageous to the farmer.

These advances increased cotton yields by reducing damage from insects and competition from weeds. More recently, cotton seed breeders like Delta and Pine Land Co. (D&PL), Scott, Miss., have begun focusing on improved fiber quality.

“If we can maintain the yield and still give the end-user — the mill — a better strength cotton with a better length and premium micronaire, it’s a plus/plus for everybody,” said a cotton farmer who is planting the new varieties.

The New Cottons

One example of these new cotton varieties is DP 444 BG/RR. In 534 trials, this cotton had an average staple length of 35.8/32, micronaire of 3.96, strength of 29.7 grams per tex and a uniformity ratio of 83.0. This year, D&PL says it sold enough DP 444 BG/RR seed to plant 1 million acres, and it expects to sell enough to plant twice that area next year.

Next year, the company will field DP 488 BG/RR. Based on 134 trials, it has an average staple length of 37.3, micronaire of 4.27, strength of 31.5 and a uniformity ratio of 82.8.

“The emphases in breeding programs over the last 10 years have been yield, micronaire and length,” said Tom Kerby, Ph.D., vice president, technical services, D&PL. “Strength is coming. We’re focusing on uniformity now more than anything else. We have some experimental varieties with exceptionally high uniformity, and the mills have been very interested in them.”

Spinners' Wish List

Spinners would like to see less trash, increased staple length and micronaire a little lower — say 4.2 to 4.4. They seem fairly happy with strength, which has been on the upswing over the last few years. Short fiber content also is very much on spinners’ minds.

“First on my radar screen right now is short fiber content, which is something that we don’t even get a measurement on from USDA,” said one spinner. “There is a lot of controversy over that. I would like to see a short fiber measurement, and I would like to see that improve [less short fiber]. And I think short-fiber content is the problem in cotton from Georgia.”

While seed breeders and cotton farmers are working each year to improve the crop, it’s an imperfect world and an imperfect cotton marketing system. At least for now, there is a limit to how much fiber quality can be improved without reducing yield.

“Mills are interested in having micronaire a little lower, but I don’t think that is going to happen,” said another spinner. “Higher micronaire is associated with higher yields, and if you sit down and look at the marketing system for cotton, I don’t think mills can pay enough for a cotton farmer to bring his yields down. If I was a farmer, I’d be doing exactly what they’re doing and producing a higher micronaire.”

Georgia On Our Minds

Speaking of Georgia, much has been written recently in the cotton press about quality problems with the cotton crop there. Last month, a spinner reported problems with Georgia cotton, and this month another spinner said he will not buy Georgia cotton this time around, due to high short-fiber content.

Theories abound about possible causes and fixes for cotton quality problems in Georgia, but there appears to be no clear consensus on either just yet. To their credit, Georgia farmers are working to keep mills in the loop on this issue.

“I know that they [Georgia cotton farmers] are interested in improving, and I think it is just a matter of time before we identify the problem and find the answer,” said a mill executive.

One spinner said he didn’t truly value the total package that US cotton delivers until he had an experience with foreign cotton several years ago. Some of the bales had metal wraps, which caused a fire hazard during transportation. Other bales appeared to be wrapped in trash bags. There were issues with contamination. It was a mess.

“It taught me to appreciate what we have here at home,” he said. “While there can and should be improvements, US cotton farmers do it better than anyone in the world.”

October 2004

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