Cotton growers increasingly face a dilemma, says Ben Lamensdorf: While the cotton they grow may be perfectly acceptable for U.S. mills, overseas buyers may reject it.
“If you plant cotton and it comes out Grade 31, with good leaf and color, but it's 1-1/16 inch, it's hard to find a home for that cotton overseas,” the Cary, Miss., producer and chairman of the board of the StaplCotn Cooperative Association says.
The difference? The equipment on which the cotton is spun.
“U.S. mills use rotary spinning machinery, and most of the Memphis Territory qualities are OK with them. But overseas mills are using ring spinning equipment, and they need 1-1/8 inch cotton. That's the first question they ask. If you say, ‘I've got what you want quality-wise, but it's 1-1/16 inch, they hang up on you.”
Lamensdorf, who spoke at a meeting of the Delta Council's Ginning and Cotton Quality Improvement and Advisory Research Committees and the Southern Cotton Ginners Association, said, “If we're going to grow cotton and sell it overseas, we've got to grow the 1-1/8 inch and 31 color they want.
“In my opinion, we're going to have to start breeding cotton for 1⅛ inch length.” Even so, he said, that may be a moving target.
“One of the reasons China and other countries are using ring spinning equipment is that they don't have the fuel we have for running rotary machines. Some Chinese plants still run on coal. If China converted to rotary spinning, they could save $100 million a year.
“It's possible that, five years down the road, they'll have new machinery and they'll take 1-1/16 inch.”
Cotton color, he noted, can be affected by weather. “You may have a lot of 31 in the field when you start picking, but if it rains and turns cloudy, that may be the last 31 you see; the rest may come in at 41 or below.
“We as farmers need to go to the seed companies and make them aware of the quality we're trying to achieve,” Lamensdorf said. “They may already have what you need, or they may be working on it. But we all need to be on the same page.”
And, he said, a farmer needs to know, when planning his crop, the market mix he wants to attain.
“I think a grower needs to plant 70 percent of his cotton for the export market, shooting for 1-1/8 inch. And there shouldn't be any ‘yield drag’ in doing this — you should get just as good a yield as you're making now.”
Other things growers can do, Lamensdorf said, to produce quality cotton:
- Keep fields clean. “You need to know, when you're putting a module down, what it's sitting on — dirt, plastic or what.
- Use high quality module tarps. “You can't let water run through your cotton and gin it and expect to sell it overseas. It hurts the cotton.”
- Control pests. “If you're going to have an early crop, you've got to control insects so the crop will mature when you expect it to.”
- Good defoliation procedures. “You may have beautiful cotton, but if you're picking too much leaf, that's not good.”
- Harvest timely. “Where we live, I'm convinced we need to be able to harvest our cotton in 25 days in order to reduce weather damage. Rainfall data averages tell us that Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 is the driest period for picking cotton.”
- Ginning. “Growers need to work closely with ginners to try and get the best quality cotton possible.”
And, Lamensdorf said, when ginning is done, the grower needs to get a “report card” from the gin manager “so you can see how much of each quality was ginned, with a goal of at least 70 percent being the quality you were aiming for.
“Find out where you took deductions and what caused them: Was there contamination? Where did it come from? You need to know these things.”
The 2004 crop, he said, was the largest StaplCotn ever handled “and they've sold every bale — they'd still be selling like crazy if they had 1-1/8 inch cotton.
“There's a home for every bale of cotton, and it can be sold,” Lamensdorf said. “But you may not like the price if it's not what the customer wants.
“There's a great market for our cotton overseas, and we need to do everything we can to grow what they want. If we're going to get this overseas business, we're all going to have to work together for our mutual benefit.”