quiet revolution has been taking place in America’s cotton fields. With the launch of
Bollgard in 1996, Roundup Ready in ’97, and Bollgard and Roundup Ready (BG/RR) in ’98,
biotechnology has produced tools that are very advantageous to the farmer.
These advances increased cotton yields by reducing damage from insects and competition from
weeds. More recently, cotton seed breeders like Delta and Pine Land Co. (D&PL), Scott, Miss.,
have begun focusing on improved fiber quality.
“If we can maintain the yield and still give the end-user — the mill — a better strength
cotton with a better length and premium micronaire, it’s a plus/plus for everybody,” said a cotton
farmer who is planting the new varieties.
The New Cottons
One example of these new cotton varieties is DP 444 BG/RR. In 534 trials, this cotton had an
average staple length of 35.8/32, micronaire of 3.96, strength of 29.7 grams per tex and a
uniformity ratio of 83.0. This year, D&PL says it sold enough DP 444 BG/RR seed to plant 1
million acres, and it expects to sell enough to plant twice that area next year.
Next year, the company will field DP 488 BG/RR. Based on 134 trials, it has an average staple
length of 37.3, micronaire of 4.27, strength of 31.5 and a uniformity ratio of 82.8.
“The emphases in breeding programs over the last 10 years have been yield, micronaire and
length,” said Tom Kerby, Ph.D., vice president, technical services, D&PL. “Strength is coming.
We’re focusing on uniformity now more than anything else. We have some experimental varieties with
exceptionally high uniformity, and the mills have been very interested in them.”
Spinners’ Wish List
Spinners would like to see less trash, increased staple length and micronaire a little lower —
say 4.2 to 4.4. They seem fairly happy with strength, which has been on the upswing over the last
few years. Short fiber content also is very much on spinners’ minds.
“First on my radar screen right now is short fiber content, which is something that we don’t
even get a measurement on from USDA,” said one spinner. “There is a lot of controversy over that. I
would like to see a short fiber measurement, and I would like to see that improve [less short
fiber]. And I think short-fiber content is the problem in cotton from Georgia.”
While seed breeders and cotton farmers are working each year to improve the crop, it’s an
imperfect world and an imperfect cotton marketing system. At least for now, there is a limit to how
much fiber quality can be improved without reducing yield.
“Mills are interested in having micronaire a little lower, but I don’t think that is going to
happen,” said another spinner. “Higher micronaire is associated with higher yields, and if you sit
down and look at the marketing system for cotton, I don’t think mills can pay enough for a cotton
farmer to bring his yields down. If I was a farmer, I’d be doing exactly what they’re doing and
producing a higher micronaire.”
Georgia On Our Minds
Speaking of Georgia, much has been written recently in the cotton press about quality problems
with the cotton crop there. Last month, a spinner reported problems with Georgia cotton, and this
month another spinner said he will not buy Georgia cotton this time around, due to high short-fiber
Theories abound about possible causes and fixes for cotton quality problems in Georgia, but
there appears to be no clear consensus on either just yet. To their credit, Georgia farmers are
working to keep mills in the loop on this issue.
“I know that they [Georgia cotton farmers] are interested in improving, and I think it is
just a matter of time before we identify the problem and find the answer,” said a mill executive.
One spinner said he didn’t truly value the total package that US cotton delivers until he had
an experience with foreign cotton several years ago. Some of the bales had metal wraps, which
caused a fire hazard during transportation. Other bales appeared to be wrapped in trash bags. There
were issues with contamination. It was a mess.
“It taught me to appreciate what we have here at home,” he said. “While there can and should
be improvements, US cotton farmers do it better than anyone in the world.”