Persistent quality problems, resulting in multiple discounts, "are becoming intolerable" for the U.S. cotton industry, says National Cotton Council President Robert McLendon.

"It's bad enough when the producer price for base grade cotton is less than 60 cents - but it's absolutely devastating when that price is reduced another 10 cents to 12 cents per pound because of color, micronaire, short fiber, low strength, and poor uniformity problems," he told growers and industry representatives at the organization's annual meeting at San Diego, Calif. "We have to find some answers, and we have to find them soon," he declared.

Declining quality and a plateauing of yield have been concerns in the industry for some time. Kent Lanclos, assistant director of economic services for the council, noted in his report that 2000 marked the third consecutive year of poor lint quality, particularly staple length and strength.

"At this point in the classing season, the national average staple length is 34.2, down from a five-year average of 34.6." Regions most affected were the Mid-South and the Southeast; in the former, staple length has averaged 34.1, compared to a five-year average of 35.1, and in the latter, the average has been 34.2, down from the five-year average of 34.7.

Across the entire Cotton Belt, Lanclos noted, average strength was 27.6 grams per tex, down from a five-year average of 28.4. "Strength has declined below 27.2 in the Southeast, Mid-South, and Southwest, with only the West showing an improvement in strength. Micronaire has declined in most regions, while the percent of the crop grading 41 or better has increased.

McLendon says he believes the 1999-2000 period will be remembered as "a time when some major initiatives" to improve cotton quality were undertaken. "We got a good start when the council's Quality Task Force agreed to recommend several changes in the Commodity Credit Corporation's loan premium and discount schedule. These were intended to stimulate improvements in color, strength, and uniformity."

NCC delegates voted to support those recommendations at last year's annual meeting, and additional quality improvement efforts continued throughout 2000. In June, a resolution was adopted calling for quality enhancement through improvements in genetic diversity in germplasm, and through identification of useful agronomic traits in conventional breeding programs. It also urged stepped-up efforts to reduce short fiber in cotton lint.

At the fall board meeting, a resolution was passed to work for a reduction of pepper trash in cotton lint, and a special task force was appointed to work with USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service to determine the feasibility of changing Universal Standards boxes to include more large leaf and less small leaf. The task force later agreed on box changes to be proposed as targets if subsequent research indicates that those targets for leaf content and particle size are workable.

"During our November meeting, our Quality Task Force brought together scientists in plant breeding, crop production, defoliation, harvest technology, ginning equipment, and fiber measurement," McLendon noted. "They summarized what is currently known about factors that contribute to trash in lint cotton and began efforts to develop a research strategy to identify ways to reduce pepper trash." These efforts by the council to improve yield and quality are "fundamental to improving profitability for our industry and maintaining our competitive edge into the future," he said. "These quality and yield objectives must not be overlooked as we continue to press for second- and third-generation developments in genetic improvements."

Andy Jordan told the council's Research and Education Programs Committee that there have been "several success stories" in eliminating contaminants between the field and the mill, including changing the color of picker doffers from black; advances in module covers and tie-down materials; and educational efforts aimed at reducing sticky cotton problems.

"My sense of it," McLendon says, "is that the industry has made an exceptionally strong commitment to deal with quality problems that have become chronic."