When Belzoni, Miss., cotton producer Brooks Aycock checked his recaps from Midnight Gin, he did a double take when he saw several bales of cotton with a staple length of 39. For anyone not familiar with cotton fiber properties, that’s closer to the measurement you would expect with Pima or extra long staple (ELS) cottons of California.
To understand just how unusual this is, USDA’s loan schedule of premiums and discounts for upland cotton stops at a staple length of 37. For Aycock, it’s the longest cotton fiber he’s ever grown. And for his fellow farmers around the Mid-South, it’s a good sign that Delta cotton growers are producing the higher quality cotton needed for the export markets.
According to USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, Cotton Division, average staple length for U.S. cotton is moving higher — improving from 35.3 in 2007 to 35.7 in 2008, with each region producing longer fiber than the previous year. The Southwest and San Joaquin Valley recorded average staple over 36, with the San Joaquin Valley recording an average of 38. The Mid-South recorded an average length of a little over 35. The U.S. average staple is the highest recorded since USDA went to 100 percent HVI classing.
Aycock was as surprised as anyone at the staple length of his cotton, which was characteristic of one variety. Like most Mid-South cotton producers, Aycock got a late start on planting, but the crop grew off quickly and was starting to show excellent yield potential. Then 28 inches of rain fell. Aycock’s 1,800 acres suffered through boll rot and other problems associated with too much moisture.
“My final yields in 2008 were 1,080 pounds per acre, compared to 1,440 pounds in 2007.” All varieties he planted in 2008 yielded within 20 pounds of each other.
The first few varieties he picked in 2008 didn’t turn out so well in quality either. “Grades ranged anywhere from a 51 color, 34 staple to a 52 color, 36 staple. Those were also high mike. In this day and age, you don’t want to grow those types of varieties.”
As he worked through the crop, however, grades started to improve. A number of varieties were average to above average in staple. “I had a few 36s and 37s, and the color grades were good.”
When he started picking the last variety he planted, PhytoGen 375 WR, it looked pretty much like the rest of the crop. It had some boll rot, but otherwise looked as good as or better than his other cotton.
As he leafed through recaps of the variety, however, he was surprised to find a large number of bales with 38 staple. When he saw several bales with a 39 staple measurement, he was sure it was a typographical error. But Midnight Gin confirmed the information.
“I was looking at 45 bales that had 31 color and 37 staple, 16 bales that were 31-38 and I had two that were 31-39. The mike was 4.0 to 4.2, and the strength was around 30. The only negative was that it had a leaf grade of 5. But I plant skip-row cotton, so that’s not uncommon for me.”
When he checked bales with a color grade of 41, he found 328 bales with a 37 staple and 4.3 mike, 68 bales with 38 staple and 4.1 mike and 11 bales with 39 staple and 4.0 mike, all with strength of 30 or better. His reaction was understandable. “I was so proud. I wanted to put a 39-staple bale in a glass case in my house. I don’t think I’ll ever make a bale any better than that one. I don’t know how long Pima is, but that is getting close. This could be the start of putting the Delta back at the forefront for quality.”
The high-quality cotton came off of three fields, which were several miles apart, according to Aycock. “Two of the fields were furrow-irrigated and the other was pivot-irrigated.”
All the fields with the extra long staple were planted to PhytoGen 375 WR, a Roundup Ready Flex, WideStrike variety. Aycock says the loan value on a 31-5-39 bale was only 2 cents higher than a base grade bale, “but it’s going to be a whole lot easier to sell. That’s the main point.”
Aycock said a neighboring farmer also produced several bales of cotton which graded out at a 39 staple, again from the PhytoGen variety.
And cotton needs any kind of edge it can get these days, Aycock said. “I take producing cotton personally. Everything I own is because of cotton. If we go to grain, there will be a lot of jobs lost. Anything positive about cotton needs to be told.”
While yields were less than the year before, he helped offset that with some opportunistic marketing. He had 80 percent of his 2008 cotton booked with Staplcotn for 92.75 cents a pound. “It was only supposed to be 60 percent, but with the shorter crop we had, it turned out to be 80 percent. I also have 37 percent hedged for 2009 at 93.5 cents.”
Meredith Allen, vice president of marketing at Staplcotn in Greenwood, Miss., has never come across a bale with a staple of 39. “We’ve seen a fair amount of 38s. But this is the first time, we’ve seen a 39.”
Allen says most markets for Mid-South cotton are demanding a 35 staple. “A few need 36 and it’s very rare when they demand a 37. But once they get used to higher staple, they’ll sure start demanding it.”
While Staplcotn may not market a bale specifically for 38 or 39 staple, those bales are nice to have because they can raise the average staple length of a lot of cotton, Allen said.
Allen noted that in 2008, Mid-South producers grew one of the longest and strongest crops in history. “We’re going to spoil a lot of textile mills with this crop. This long staple is going to run fantastic in the mills.”