“We serve the industry, and if that’s what the industry feels needs to be done, we’ll work with everyone to try and make it possible,” he told members of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association at their annual summer conference at Franklin.

Acknowledging “a lot of discussion” in the industry over the past couple of years about the possibilities of such a transition, he cautioned that while there may well be advantages, there are also drawbacks - and a lot of challenges in making it happen.

The AMS “has been involved in determining cotton quality since the early 1900s,” Earnest said, “and we’ve become the world leader in establishing and maintaining universal cotton standards.”

Any move to a different system would need to be sure those standards were not compromised and that the “integrity and accuracy” of cotton quality measurements were maintained, he noted.

Advantages would include “immediate data feedback” to the grower and cost savings in warehousing and storage of samples.

But, Earnest pointed out, in 2001 there were 950-1,000 cotton gins, “with diverse volumes and technologies,” which could pose problems assuring that procedures and quality control met required standards.

For those gins offering classing, USDA would still have to provide oversight and monitor the validity of data in order to insure “that the end user receives unbiased classing results.” And there are concerns as to whether or not the sensitive classing equipment could be calibrated and monitored remotely, not to mention the need for it to be located in a controlled environment.

Because of the financial, personnel, and infrastructure requirements for classing systems, it’s likely not all gins would participate, which would require USDA to continue offering classing to serve those gins’ customers.

Gins would be faced with additional costs for the equipment and USDA’s cotton program would have costs for monitoring, oversight, and providing classing for growers whose gins didn’t offer classing.

“These costs would likely be passed back to the grower,” Earnest said.

Bottom line, he noted, “There are many, many questions. We’re not taking either a positive or negative stance on it; rather, we’re looking at it logically and thoroughly, so we can work with the industry to continue providing the most accurate classing data at the lowest cost.”

In another report presented at the conference, ginners were told that, since 1968, the number of U.S. cotton gins has dropped by almost 77 percent, while the volume of cotton per gin has gone up 686 percent.

As to be expected, said Thomas D. Valco, who prepared the study, gins with the largest volume have the lowest per bale operating costs – almost $4 per bale difference.

Valco, who is USDA cotton technology and transfer education coordinator at Stoneville, Miss., derived his figures from a survey of cotton belt ginners. “Higher capacity helps reduce operating costs,” he said.

“From 1997 to 2001, there wasn’t much difference in total variable costs because of increased gin volume, except for slight increases in energy costs.”

Last year, the average of total variable costs for gins responding in his survey was $19.59 per bale. The highest total variable costs were in the Southwest, $22.10, followed by the Far West, $20.23; the Mid-South, $17.72; and the Southeast, $15.61.

Per bale ginning costs vary between regions, he noted. “Costs in the Far West were up dramatically last year due to the steep increases for electricity; Mid-South and Southeast costs are quite low.”

His survey showed per bale electricity costs of $5.82 in the Far West, $3.68 in the Southwest, $2.35 in the Southeast, and $2.84 in the Mid-South.

In 1968, Valco said, the U.S. had 4,200 operating cotton gins; last year that number had dropped to 971. The Southwest had the most gins, 330, followed by the Mid-South, 297; the Southeast, 212; and the Far West, 132.

The average bales ginned per facility in 1968 was 2,588; last year it was 20,362. Far West gins responding to the survey had the highest average, 34,810 bales, followed by the Southeast, 33,526; the Mid-South, 29,090, and Southwest, 18,108.

In the Mid-South, responding gins averaged operating 11 weeks during the 2001 season, with an average 23.3 bales per hour ginning rate. Of the crop they ginned, 98 percent was picker cotton, 2 percent stripper.

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com