Although there was concern last fall about abnormally high leaf grades in Mississippi cotton, only a very small percentage of the crop classed at the Dumas, Ark., USDA Cotton Classing Office was in the higher range.

High leaf grades can result in large price discounts for that cotton.

“We kept getting calls about leaf grade 8,” says Keith Maloney, area director for the Dumas facility, who spoke at the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s annual commodity conference. “Ginners would call and say, ‘I’ve never seen leaf grade 8 before.’”

Leaf grade 8 is referred to as “below grade.” High leaf grades can be caused by a number of factors, including condition of cotton plants at harvest, harvest preparation, weather conditions at harvest, and weeds in the field at harvest. Cotton grades can be further reduced for specific trash contaminants, hairy leaf varieties, poor defoliation prior to harvest, harvesting damp cotton, and other factors.

“We were seeing some higher leaf grades early in harvest,” Maloney says, “and some gins had to make adjustments in their ginning to accommodate it. But as the season went on, we saw improvement in leaf grades in those few problem areas.

“So, while it was a relatively high leaf year on average, less than .1 percent of the bales classed from Mississippi fell into leaf grade 8. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been had it been more widespread.

The average leaf grade for Mississippi bales classed in 2012 was 3.8, up slightly from 3.4 in 2011. Arkansas averaged 4.11 in 2012, compared to 3.48 in 2011

Leaf grades 6 and 7 were 4.6 percent and 6.7 percent of the Mississippi crop classed at Dumas. Leaf grade 5 was 20 percent.

Leaf grade 4, the base grade, accounted for 35.5 percent of the Mississippi bales classed, and 49 percent in Arkansas.

Leaf grades 3 made up 37.9 percent of the Mississippi bales, and 22 percent in Arkansas.

“Of cotton classed at our office, 84 percent was from Mississippi,” Maloney says. “Most of the Arkansas cotton we class comes from the southeast part of the state, and represented about 22 percent of the state’s crop.”

The Dumas office classed 1,044,000 bales from the 2012 crop in the two states, he says, which was “more than had been forecast in our planning and budget process — we had forecast a total of 900,000 bales, with about 670,000 from Mississippi and 230,000 from Arkansas.

“We actually graded over 762,000 from Mississippi, with the balance from Arkansas. What made the difference was the outstanding yields producers had last year — many of them had record yields.”

The quality of the Mississippi crop was “pretty good overall,” Maloney says. Micronaire averaged 4.8, compared to 4.9 in 2011.

“The crop was really strong for strict middling cotton, averaging 35 grams per text. Staple length averaged 36, compared to 34.9 in 2011. Uniformity was 81.5 for 2012, compared to 81.2 in 2011.”

In color, middling grade 31 and higher averaged 77 percent in 2012, up from 28.7 percent the previous year. The base color grade 41, strict low middling, was 64 percent, compared to 17 percent in 2011. Low middling grade 51 was 2.3 percent of the 2012 crop, up from .2 percent in 2011. Light spotted grade was 4.5 percent in 2012, compared to 5.6 percent in 2011.

Bark levels in Mississippi averaged about 6.6 percent for level 1 bark. There was a slight increase in seed coat fragments to 1.7 percent of the 762,000 bales. Arkansas averaged less than .2 percent seed coat fragments, but averaged 6.5 percent bark.

Overall, Mid-South quality was down just a bit, “but not as much as we thought early in the season,” Maloney says.

“Looking at it from a broad perspective, the crop was better than we originally had expected.”

Promoting module averaging

With a lot of U.S. cotton being shipped overseas, he says, “Our main goal is making sure we do everything we can to maintain the highest quality standards for Mid-South and U.S. cotton,” he says. “Our agency’s administration is being proactive in trying to promote module averaging and encourage farmers to consider using this method. We’ve found module averaging useful in helping to reduce complaints from overseas buyers.”

Module averaging, first offered in 1991, as a means of reducing variability associated with cotton strength, was expanded in 1992 to include length, strength, length uniformity, and micronaire. The system is based on the concept that all cotton within a module is well-blended by the time it is baled and sampled.  USDA studies have shown the variability within a module is not significantly different than the variability within a bale.

Results are more accurate than a single bale test, stand up to re-testing upon delivery, hold up against scrutiny and challenge, provide added confidence to the spinner in laydowns, and are more reliable months later.

Studies each year by the cotton program have shown overall positive economic results for module averaging, with possible added benefits to storing, staging, and shipping of bales.

History has proven that module averaging is a more accurate means for assigning classing data, the USDA says, and is supported statistically through 20 years of classing data, plus value setting studies on calibration cotton.

Module averaging, the agency says, provides customers with improved accuracy in quality measurements, with results that are more reproducible and repeatable, statistically reliable, and more consistent for all data users.

USDA Cotton Classing Offices are moving toward more automation of processes,” Maloney says. “We’re steadily upgrading our equipment and facilities. We hope by the 2014 crop we’ll have a lot of this new equipment up and running. We want to be on the leading edge of technology.

“This past year, we opened a new facility at Lamesa, Texas, and we’re looking at upgrades for the Lubbock facility as the next project. One of the challenges in planning what we can do is trying to determine what the volume of the cotton crop will be in the coming years.

In planning for classing the 2013 crop at the Dumas office, Malone says, “We’re hearing that cotton acreage could decline from 25 percent to 40 percent. We’ll be watching the grower intentions surveys, and we’ll contacting growers and ginners to try and get a handle on what the crop size will be so we can continue provide the best service possible at the lowest cost possible.”