Back in the day, and that would be a day not all that long ago, cotton quality was a good thing to have, but not as high a priority as it has become recently.

As late as 1997 most of the cotton produced in the United States was used domestically, says Texas AgriLife Extension cotton specialist Gaylon Morgan.

“In 2010,” Morgan told a cotton seminar at the recent 50th Annual Blackland Income Growth Conference in Waco, “80 percent of the U.S. crop was exported. Now, we have to meet higher international standards.”

He also noted that since 50 percent or more of the U.S. cotton crop is produced in Texas, it is incumbent on Texas cotton farmers to do all they can to meet those high standards.                      

“Variety selection is a good first step, he said. “Identify key variety characteristics and choose accordingly. Look at the Texas AgriLife variety test.” The website is:

He said one characteristic producers should consider is leaf hairiness. “We’ve seen a difference in leaf grade between smooth and hairy leaf varieties.” Hairy leaf cotton tends to carry higher leaf grades.

Seed coat fragments also cause quality problems, primarily neps, blemishes in finished cloth that affect fabric quality. Morgan said seed coat fragments cause “yarn breakage and downtime in mills. Seed coat fragments increase the presence of neps. From 13 percent to 27 percent of neps can be associated with seed coat fragments.”

These fragments cause fabric to absorb dyes differently, resulting in blemishes in finished cloth. “Some previous research has reported seed coat fragments contributing up to 34 percent of the total foreign matter in cotton,” Morgan said.

Some varieties may be more prone to create higher seed coat fragments, but the extreme heat and drought in the 2011 growing season was the major culprit. “Also, all the mechanical steps along the way from harvest through ginning affect the level of seed coat fragment numbers.”

Morgan said the 2011 crop missed expectations with less than 10 percent of the crop rated good-to-excellent. Of the 7.5 million acres planted in Texas, farmers harvested only 3.1 million.

Opportunities seem better early in 2012 following rainfall, but the region has a lot of catching up to do. In January, the drought monitor map indicated conditions were far worse than they were at the same time in 2011 for most of Texas. Rainfall across central and north Texas has improved soil moisture conditions since then, but the Southern Plains remain dry.

Morgan said the U.S. drought monitor map shows other states with problems. “Georgia was in pretty rough shape” early in the year, “but Texas was in the bull’s-eye.”

Predictions in February also indicated at least a 50 percent chance the region would be dry again.

Morgan said growers, heading into what may be another moisture-limited growing season, should pay close attention to variety selection and moisture conservation. 

He advised growers to plant for earliness, but not to rush things. “Wait for 60-degree soil temperatures. The more quickly seed germinates and emerges the better result you can expect.”

He said managing limited irrigation resources will also be a key to success in 2012. “Peak bloom is the highest water use period,” he said. “Moisture stress at peak flowering is the most detrimental to yield potential.”