Cotton Links

Fiber Quality

Protecting Cotton During Harvest
And Ginning Can Increase Profit Margins

By Tommy Horton


The goal is the same every year – no matter where cotton is harvested across the Belt. Somehow, defoliation must be timely, harvesting has to be efficient and ginning should protect fiber quality.

The process sounds simple enough. Unfortunately, the weather and other factors can wreak havoc on the best plans a farmer might have.

In a year which saw every input cost dramatically increase, it’s safe to say this was an expensive cotton crop to produce. For that reason, it behooves producers and ginners to take extra care to maintain quality at every step in the production chain.

Ed Barnes, director of agricultural research at Cotton Incorporated, says numerous factors can affect fiber quality, and he calls it a “balancing act” for farmers as they move into defoliation and harvest.

“When input costs aren’t that high and prices are good, anybody can make money growing cotton,” says Barnes. “In the situation we’re in now, you can’t afford to have poor management.”

Timing Is Everything

Some of the most important decisions farmers face now are knowing when to defoliate and apply harvest- aid products. Afterwards, it’s important to keep cotton clean and dry in the module and at the gin.

“Once that boll opens, it is at its best stage,” Barnes adds. “Let’s face it. It’s downhill from that point on, and time is not always on our side.”

At this point in early September, defoliation has already occurred and harvest is underway in some areas – particularly in the Coastal Bend of Texas. Meanwhile, other areas are in that critical time frame between defoliation and harvest.

Barnes says using the 60 percent open boll rule or selecting a time based on heat units after cutout still applies on when to defoliate the crop. However, the temptation to wait on the top bolls to increase yields is a risky proposition – even when everything goes well.

“Don’t let that top crop fool you,” says Barnes. “You can sacrifice valuable yields and quality by waiting too long before defoliating.”

Assuming that defoliation goes well, the major priorities are efficient harvesting techniques and effective ginning. No matter what region of the Belt is studied, Barnes says these harvesting and ginning approaches are always important in delivering a quality bale to the customer.

More specifically, certain practices should be embraced, such as harvesting when humidity levels aren’t excessively high. Even when a producer is tempted to run a picker through a field early in the morning or in the evening, there are potential problems awaiting because of moisture.

“We know from our past studies that if you harvest at the right humidity levels and keep seed cotton moisture below 12 percent, you’ll do OK,” says Barnes.

Although it might seem logical that all producers would know the importance of well-built modules and clean tarps, Barnes says these points can’t be emphasized enough.

A worn-out tarp and a poorly-constructed module are the perfect combination for contamination to occur in seed cotton headed to the gin.

“We have done studies that show fiber quality can definitely be affected by not protecting the cotton in the module,” Barnes says.

Ginning For Quality

Nobody has to tell ginners how important their jobs are in the quest for fiber quality this year. For several years, the ginning sector has made a concerted effort to address all issues that affect the fiber.

Nowhere is this more evident than in south Texas. Sid Brough, manager of the EdCot Cooperative Gin in Edroy, Texas, is one of the leaders in the Texas ginning industry and has many years of experience in dealing with problems affecting quality.

Brough says ginners are doing everything possible to process cotton in a way that protects lint.

He knows all about difficult situations when it comes to timely defoliation and harvesting prior to ginning. On numerous occasions, producers and ginners in south Texas battle extreme drought, tropical storms and hurricanes.

Those situations sometimes create an environment where the crop is harvested quickly before the storms hit. That, in turn, creates a challenge for ginners who might have to deal with wet lint.

“As far as damp cotton is concerned, we haven’t had a problem with that in several years,” says Brough. “The cotton that gets harvested usually comes in pretty dry. We’ve learned how to deal with these weather problems pretty well.”

Cotton’s Global Market

Just a few years ago, most producers and ginners probably didn’t appreciate the fact that their customer base was changing. Back then, the U.S. textile mill sector was consuming 11 million bales each year. The export market was somewhere between 5 and 6 million bales.

Those numbers have flipped, with two-thirds of U.S. cotton now headed to the export market.

“Don’t get me wrong,” says Brough. “We appreciate the U.S. textile mill customers that we still have. We’re thankful for those 4 to 5 million bales that go to the domestic mills. But we also know that we must meet the needs of China and the Asian market.”

Brough says it’s obvious what the overseas mill customer wants – two or three-leaf grade, 36 staple and good strength.

Even though that kind of requirement – especially the leaf grade – is difficult to find in south Texas, Brough says Texas farmers are more aware of what the Asian mill sector needs.

Not surprisingly, Brough also is proud of how Texas has about half of all planted cotton acreage in the country this year. For that reason, he believes farmers in his state won’t desert cotton for other crops.

“We’ll continue to do everything we can to deliver cotton quality to our customers,” he says. “I still think we’re looking at a good turnaround in acres by 2010. I definitely see better days ahead for us.”

Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or thorton@onegrower.com.

Take Care Of Modules And Tarps

The module-tarp issue was so important to Cotton Incorporated that a special brochure was published recently after a study was co-sponsored with Texas A&M University, the Cotton Foundation and the Texas Department of Agriculture. Results of that study offered some dramatic findings.

At one Texas location, lint value was reduced $400 per module when poor tarps were used. A poor module shape reduced the value an additional $200. Not surprisingly, gin turnout was reduced from 34 percent with well-built modules and good tarps to 26 percent with poorly-built modules under poor tarps. Ginning rates were cut from 42 bales per hour with good module shapes and good tarps to 19 bales per hour with both poor module shapes and poor tarps.

The Texas research also shows that more than half of all modules evaluated in gin yards were built incorrectly. The modules should resemble a loaf of bread, and it’s important that the module be tightly compacted, with more cotton in the middle than on the ends.

Although replacing tarps might seem like a low priority task, it is a small investment that can pay off. Ed Barnes, Cotton Incorporated’s director of ag research, says it’s important that producers not procrastinate about making such purchases. If the tarp can’t be repaired, a new one costs between $65 and $120. That simple investment makes economic sense when compared to the possible losses from poor cotton quality and low ginning rates.

“The take-away message here is that farmers and ginners can’t be careless about anything,” says Barnes. “I certainly think that farmers are more aware of what needs to be done to preserve fiber quality. And ginners know what they have to do protect that fiber at the gin.”

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