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Drought May Affect Fiber Properties At Gin

All of the current crop production discussion as I write this note in August for September publication has been about the loss of the U.S. corn crop due to record-breaking drought and heat in many parts of the Corn Belt. The cotton crop also is having its struggles, and the USDA August cotton production report has pegged the U.S. 2012 cotton yields at 33 pounds-per-acre below the five-year average.

Most of this yield loss is forecast for the Southwest, which also accounts for more than half of the U.S. planted acreage and about half of its total bales. Most cotton producers will likely tell you that cotton yield is the No. 1 quality factor followed by all that HVI fiber data in second place. Every cotton state also grows corn, so wherever in the Cotton Belt that corn has taken a severe hit from drought, there are likely cotton fields nearby that are also suffering to some degree as indicated by the August cotton production report.

The cotton plant is amazingly resilient but is also sensitive to environmental factors like drought at most stages of its growth. No one knows right now where in the Cotton Belt or to what extent drought will affect fiber properties. However, you can be sure there will be some noticeable environmental effects on fiber quality in some areas.

Cotton gins will decrease staple length and length uniformity from the mechanical separation of fiber and seed during the ginning process and subsequent lint cleaning. These length changes are expected and, for cottons grown with adequate moisture, are not issues. Cotton gins also improve trash readings by cleaning the seed cotton and ginned fiber as well as improve HVI color readings by removing trash and blending the fiber during lint cleaning.

Cotton gins normally do not change micronaire and strength readings. Drought can negatively impact all of the fiber quality measurements mentioned above depending on when the moisture shortage occurs and for how long. The current estimate is that 1.6 million acres of cotton in Texas alone will not even be harvested. However, for those cotton acres that sustained some drought damage, but were still harvested, the fiber effects can run from almost unnoticeable to significant.

– Ed Hughs is Director of the Southwest Ginning Research Laboratory in Mesilla Park, N.M. Contact him at (575) 526-6381 or ed.hughs@ars.usda.gov.