“A contentious issue.” That's how John Mitchell, Cargill Cotton, Memphis, describes the practice of many gins in adding moisture to cotton bales in the ginning process.
Restoring moisture to cotton during ginning, within limits, can be a good thing, proponents say, by adding a bit of weight and thus a few more dollars to the value of a bale. But if done improperly, say those who oppose the practice, it can adversely affect quality of the baled cotton over time, resulting in complaints, discounts, or even rejection by the end user.
And they say, it's the end user — increasingly overseas mills as U.S. cotton grows more dependent on the export market — who sees discolored and degraded bales from too much water as yet another black mark against U.S. cotton on the quality scale.
Many ginners, though, consider the issue as something of a tempest in a teapot, with problems caused by only a few gins reflecting poorly on the majority. And most were less than happy that pressures were brought to bear on the USDA to develop regulations relating to moisture restoration.
“What was thought to be a widespread problem turned out to be limited to two gins that processed only 66,000 bales out of the 23 million bale-plus 2005 crop,” said a resolution passed by the Southern Cotton Ginners Association at its summer conference at Hot Springs, Ark.
“The specific causes of the problems at each of those gins can be easily remedied,” the resolution says.
Cargill's John Mitchell, speaking at the Hot Springs meeting, said, “We started noticing, five or six years ago, an increasing number of claims by mills that cotton was one or two grades lower than what they'd bought, and they wanted compensation.
“We'd look at the USDA classing records and see that we'd shipped 31-3-35 cotton, so we'd tell them, in effect, ‘Get lost.’ But when they sent samples to us, we had to agree with them — there was a very dramatic difference from what we'd shipped. It took several years to piece it all together…that the problem stemmed from adding moisture back to cotton bales.”
There were “some dramatic examples” last season, Mitchell said — “bales in the warehouse dripping water, caked, and rotten.”
But the underlying issue, he said, “is more in the middle ground, where the bale isn't ruined, but the cotton quality has been changed as a result of added water.”
Twenty or 25 years ago, weight gain from added water “was very important to us,” Mitchell says. “Today, it's not. That's history, the old way of doing things, and we frankly don't think it's worth it.”
Shane Stephens, who's with the StaplCotn cooperative at Greenwood, Miss., said, “We've probably experienced more problems with water-packed bales than anyone. It's a problem that affects our ability to sell our cotton.
“What you do (in adding water) might not hurt a particular cotton bale, but cotton is being hurt by this practice, and if we don't all reach some comfort level on this, it's going to hurt U.S. cotton in general.”
There was a point, he said, when “it looked as if the USDA was going to declare hundreds of thousands of bales ineligible for the loan because of this; they were considering some very intrusive rules.”
The National Cotton Council Bale Moisture Committee's recommendations helped resolve the issue, Stephens said. “Not everyone agreed, but the committee did what it thought was best for U.S. cotton in order to maintain our integrity around the world.”
Mills likely are going to start including language in their contracts imposing bale moisture limits, John Mitchell says. “None of us will like it. I'd rather let our industry write solutions than to let the textile mills do it one-sidedly, which could create a real bottleneck for our industry.”
The SCGA's position paper acknowledges that moisture management has been a major focus of cotton ginning research for the last decade, but says “data clearly indicate that moisture restoration at the gin causes no significant fiber quality degradation unless the level exceeds 7.5 percent.
“Our association, in cooperation with the National Cotton Council, the National Cotton Ginners Association, university Extension Services, and USDA, conduct educational programs cautioning ginners to manage their moisture restoration systems to maintain fiber quality. When managed properly, moisture restoration improves the gin's performance, with little or no damage to fiber quality.”
The SCGA contends “adequate regulations are already in place to protect the integrity of the CCC loan program,” and says because only a very small number of active cotton gins had significant problems in 2005, and liquid moisture restoration systems have been used for several decades on a large percentage of the U.S. crop, “we feel that no changes in regulations are justified at this time.
“If new regulations are needed in the future, we ask that adequate time be allocated for the U.S. cotton industry to develop recommendations from the grassroots level, and to properly educate any affected sectors. Each organization that has representation in the National Cotton Council needs time to assemble and condense ideas before they are expressed as industry consensus.”
Agricultural Engineer Bill Mayfield, who had a long career in cotton with USDA and is now consultant for the SCGA, said at a Clarksdale, Miss., ginner meeting, “In my opinion — and I emphasize, my opinion — I think moisture restoration is needed, but ginners need to monitor the process carefully so moisture doesn't exceed recommended levels.
“If they're going to add water, they need to have the technology to measure it adequately.”
Only a small number of gins have been responsible for the problems that have resulted from moisture restoration, Mayfield says, “and it's not a situation that warrants regulation by the USDA.”
He cautioned, though, “Everyone's going to be looking at the gins, and a few wet bales can cause problems for everyone. The spotlight's on us, and we've got to do a really good job with this.”
It's also possible, Mayfield said, that the USDA could issue regulations that “could put all the sprayers out of business.”