U.S. cotton growers have long benefited from U.S. textile mills' high tech approach to spinning cotton. To the experienced spinner armed with HVI data and advanced software programs, having the knowledge of what fiber properties are available to him is just as important as the actual fiber properties. A lot could be done with a wide range of fiber qualities.
The market for U.S. raw cotton is shifting to a predominately international market, where spinners have different solutions to quality issues. Rather than adapt to what is available, they prefer a longer, stronger cotton with less short fiber content.
The U.S. cotton industry has responded to that demand with changed attitudes and new varieties. The difference in quality even since last year is impressive for the three-fourths of the crop which had been classed by Dec. 16.
For example, according to the Agricultural Marketing Service, in 2003, average staple of all cotton classed reached or exceeded 35 at only three U.S. classing offices: Phoenix, Ariz., Visalia, Calif., and Corpus Christi, Texas.
This past season, with almost 17 million bales classed, average staple length had reached or exceeded 35 at seven classing offices: Dumas, Ark., Florence, S.C., Lamesa, Texas, Rayville, La., Phoenix, Visalia, and Corpus Christi.
Memphis, Tenn., Lubbock, Texas, and Macon, Ga., were close with average staple lengths of 34.8, 34.9, and 34.7, respectively.
Meanwhile, the percentage of staple at 34 and below dropped significantly from 2003 to 2004 in four classing offices: Macon, from 63.9 percent to 40.3 percent; Lubbock, from 63 percent to 42.8 percent; Abilene, Texas, from 62.4 percent to 44.2 percent; and Birmingham, Ala., from 58 percent to 49.8 percent.
Micronaire has declined to more desirable levels as well. In 2002, the average mike of the U.S. crop was 4.6. To get average mike that high meant that quite a bit of the crop had to be in the discount range. In fact, mike discounts cost growers around $75 million in 2002.
At mid-December, most classing offices were reporting mike in the 4.0 to 4.4 range. The Rayville classing office reported the highest average mike at 4.7, but 77 percent of the crop was in the base range.
These are important improvements. According to a Globecot survey of 100 spinners worldwide, staple length and micronaire are most important in buying decisions. Color grade was important, as were supply, shipping and reliability.
According to the survey, what could keep spinners from buying U.S. cotton are high prices, lack of merchant reliability, shipping problems, stickiness and quality problems, and a lack of familiarity with U.S. growths and U.S. purchasing procedures.
Low- and medium-quality cotton is still desirable under certain circumstances. According to Cotton Incorporated's Katie Van Winkle, “There are mills that will buy our (low and medium) quality cotton, and they're happy to have it at a discount.
“That pool is not a large pool. We can't grow 18 million bales of it. In general, the international market prefers a longer staple, lower mike and higher strength cotton.”
Seed breeders with private companies and those with the cotton breeding program at Cotton Incorporated are working to bring new varieties with improved quality to the market. But growers must be compelled to purchase new varieties with higher staple, etc., meaning they must yield as good as or better than shorter staple varieties and/or pay off with higher quality.
The fact that U.S. cotton producers broke a record with an average U.S. yield of 828 pounds per acre in 2004, while improving quality, is proof that we're getting there.