With increasing use of electronics, bar coding, and radio frequency identification (RFID) systems, and information stored in the “cloud,” tracking of individual bales back to the source becomes a simple matter, Watson says.

“Technology is becoming more integrated in our operations, to make production, harvesting, ginning, and transporting more efficient, but at the same time it raises the bar on accountability.”

Over the past two decades, Watson says, U.S. cotton has undergone a major transition, going from an agricultural product to a consumer product, and from a commodity used mostly in America to one that’s mostly exported.

“In the 1990s, we were using about 11 million bales domestically and sending about 7 million to foreign buyers,” Watson. “Now, we’re using only about 3.6 million bales domestically and are exporting 11.3 million. Cotton is now a truly global market. If it weren’t for exports, U.S. cotton sales would be in a world of trouble.”

At the same time that U.S. cotton exports have been increasing, there has been a major evolution in foreign spinning mills, he says.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, overseas mills were radically different than those in the U.S.; today, they’re essentially the same. The only difference is the distance we have to ship our cotton to those mills and tariffs and other barriers to trade.

“To be competitive in the world market, spinning mills in China, the Far East, and elsewhere have had to move to the latest equipment and most efficient management. Now, these mills are using technology that was once predominant in the U.S.

“We’re seeing more vortex spinning, which is much faster — but it puts a lot of stress on cotton fiber.”

Cost is still a major consideration for foreign mills, Watson says. “Depending on the yarn being spun, cotton can represent 50 percent to 75 percent of the manufacturing cost. If a mill doesn’t buy wisely, it can be out of business.”

For years, he says, cotton and polyester prices tracked each other closely. But when cotton prices skyrocketed in 2011, cotton’s share of the market declined and polyester claimed a larger share.

“We’ll be spending the next five or 10 years fighting and clawing to try and regain this lost market share,” Watson says.

Quality is a key factor in helping to keep foreign mills buying U.S. cotton, he says.

“Five years ago, we had slipped in quality, particularly in terms of length and strength, but now we’re producing longer, stronger fiber on the farm and in the gin.”

Even so, he says, length uniformity has not been improving at the same pace, and work needs to be done to preserve fiber length and reduce short fiber content.

hbrandon@farmpress.com

 

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