KEISER, Ark. -- A shift in the market for Arkansas cotton from domestic textile mills to those in foreign countries might eventually impact the quality standards that help determine the prices farmers receive.

A trend in the textile industry toward fabric made in low-cost labor markets has drastically cut demand from U.S. textile mills, but demand for cotton grown in Arkansas and other states has increased as China and other countries have expanded milling capacity.

The fiber length standards for U.S. mills are 1 1/16 inch compared to a standard of 1 1/8 inch for the export market. Bill Robertson, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture cotton specialist, said the difference has not yet impacted Arkansas growers.

Currently, the price a grower receives is discounted only if it falls below the U.S. market standard, Robertson said. Farmers have long complained that no premium is paid for meeting the higher export standard.

Many Arkansas farmers receive a discounted price now, usually due to high micronaire (fiber thickness or coarseness). Some growers could benefit if a premium were paid for higher quality, but more might suffer if the standard upon which discounts are based is raised, Robertson said.

“Our fibers tend to be short and fat,” said Fred Bourland, a Division of Agriculture cotton breeder and director of the Northeast Research and Extension Center at Keiser, Ark.

In his breeding program, Bourland focuses on lint yield as the top priority and then worries about quality traits.

“An important part of our selection process is the weight of lint per seed and estimating the number of fibers per seed,” Bourland said. “We are focusing on yield, but this selection process also helps us select for finer, longer fibers. Our material has attracted considerable attention since we began using these yield components as selection criteria.”

Bourland’s breeding lines may be released as new varieties or used by other breeders in the development of improved varieties.

Bourland also coordinates the annual Arkansas Cotton Variety Test that provides an objective comparison of commercial varieties under growing conditions at five locations from Desha County to Mississippi County.

“We do a full range of fiber tests,” Bourland said. “The FiberMax varieties from Australia have set a higher standard for quality. DeltaPine 444BG/RR is doing well yield-wise and shows improvement in fiber length.”

Management, in addition to variety selection, can greatly influence fiber coarseness, but length is primarily controlled by the genetics of the cotton variety planted, Bourland said.

Fiber lengths reported in the Arkansas Cotton Variety Test results are higher than the grower is likely to achieve, Bourland said, but they provide a basis for comparing one variety to another for farmers who want to select varieties with genetic potential for longer fibers.

The Arkansas Cotton Variety Test 2003 (Research Series 513) is available on-line at www.ArkansasVarietyTesting.org. A printed copy is available at no charge from the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station. Order by phone, 479-575-5647, or e-mail: donnasm@uark.edu.

Howell Medders writes for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station. 479-575-5647 or e-mail: hmedders@uark.edu