This past year was a surprisingly good one for Georgia cotton producers, especially considering that no fewer than four hurricanes or tropical storms visited the state, says University of Georgia Extension Cotton Specialist Steve M. Brown.

It's estimated that Georgia growers harvested 1.8 million bales from about 1.28 million acres in 2004, for an average yield of 686 pounds per acre, said Brown at the recent Georgia Cotton Production Workshop held in Tifton.

“As we look back on the year, one huge question was how much cotton was lost. We saw the effects of three to four hurricanes or tropical storms, and we felt like we probably lost 100 pounds per acre or more. In some places, it was very clear that we lost 200 pounds per acre, yet we ended with 686 pounds per acre, and that's somewhat surprising to some of us,” he says.

“As we approached harvest earlier in the season, we felt as though we had a 725-pound per acre crop. This suggests to me that we actually had a better crop than we anticipated. We might have had an 800-pound crop in the field earlier. We have to be pleased that we ended up with this much cotton, considering what we experienced during the year,” says the agronomist.

The U.S. cotton crop for 2004 is a little more than 13.2 million acres, with a production of 22.5 million bales — an all-time record production. Nine states had all-time record average yields per acre. However, average yields were down in Georgia and Alabama due to damage from hurricanes and tropical storms.

“If we look at Georgia in terms of technology, the stacked-gene or Bollgard/Roundup Ready varieties continue to dominate, with more than 80 percent of the acreage planted this past year. The other big category is straight Roundup Ready. Bollgard and conventional acres continue to decline as a percentage of the total acreage,” says Brown.

Deltapine 555 was planted on about 56 percent of Georgia's cotton acreage in 2004, he adds.

Turning to fiber quality, data from the Macon classing office in mid-December showed that 90 percent of Georgia's cotton crop graded 41 or better in terms of color. “That's remarkable given what we've experienced. This is a very good number,” he says.

Bark is at 3 percent and grass is less than 1 percent, says Brown. “Staple is quite good, probably the best we've seen in several years. Leaf grade is good, and strength is exceptional at 29.5.

Across the United States, looking at grades from all classing offices, strength numbers are up. But we had vastly different conditions than did other parts of the Cotton Belt. Georgia had above-average temperatures while much of the Cotton Belt had below-average temperatures.

“Micronaire is good but uniformity is not good, and this is going to get a lot of attention. This is 1/10 of a point better than last year, and we'll take any improvement. This is reflecting 1.5 million bales, with 10 percent short staple and 7 percent high mike. Collectively, we believe these numbers are quite good, particularly if you think about staple and strength. This was a surprisingly good year for us, although prices are bad.”

Fiber quality was a dominating issue for Georgia growers this past summer, says Brown. At a major conference in South Carolina, a prominent U.S. merchant made negative comments about Georgia cotton, he says.

“People were wrestling with this issue in the textile industry, and it gained a lot of publicity. Similar comments were made at another meeting, and it really threw the spotlight on Georgia — a negative spotlight or a bull's eye. The fiber quality issue generated a bit of concern for the 2004 crop. But as we look to the future, it was a serious issue for us. It started a cotton fire, and a cotton fire is difficult to put out.”

Researchers, says Brown, have been examining the fiber quality issue in Georgia. “We're doing a lot of investigation on the technical side of this issue. We've had a lot of meetings.

“We have come to some conclusions about the technical side of the issue, and it does seem to be related to short fiber content. Technically, short fiber means any fibers that are one half inch or less in length.”

Short fiber reduces efficiency, which causes problems in textile mills, he says. Textile mills in the United States and around the world operate on speed and volume, he says.

“Some of the data suggests that Georgia probably has 12-plus percent short fiber content. Other parts of the U.S. often run 6 to 8 percent or less. This isn't a new problem. There were rumblings of this in the late 1990s. In fact, one U.S. textile mill took a position against us at the time.”

The standard USDA classing system is HVI or High Volume Instrumentation, explains Brown. It doesn't directly measure short fiber content, but it does give a uniformity index, which is a number based on the average fiber length divided by the upper half-mean length. The upper half-mean length is what is commonly referred to as staple.

A better tool for measuring short fiber content, says Brown, is referred to as AFIS or Advanced Fiber Instrumentation System. “It's a very slow process, and it can't achieve the number of investigations that can be obtained with the other system. It does seem that improvements in fiber length, particularly staple and perhaps strength, tend to overcome or mask the issue of short fiber.”

The fiber quality issue cast a shadow over Georgia cotton producers, says Brown.

“As we got into the 2004 crop, the big question was whether or not it could surpass the quality of our 2003 crop. The bottom-line answer was ‘no.’ We had great conditions in June, but we had heat and drought in July and August. We also had double the percentage of acres planted in DP 555, and we know it's not particularly great on the uniformity and short fiber content side, so we had real concerns.

“If we had trouble with the 2003 crop, that did not bode well for 2004. We had an abundance of rain in June during 2004, but the rain cut off in July and August. There wasn't much chance we could see our crop looking as good as in 2003, from a fiber quality standpoint. We thought we were doomed. Adding insult to injury were hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.”

However, in late July and August, there was less stinkbug pressure in Georgia, and growers also were more aggressive in managing stinkbugs. “The stinkbug taught us a hard lesson in 2003, and it got farmers' attention.”

“Variety selection certainly has an influence on fiber quality,” says Brown. “And even though we planted DP 555 in abundance, it probably has a better fiber package than DP 458, particularly in terms of staple.”

Harvest timing also is a key issue for Georgia growers, he says. “While we were frustrated by storms, our farmers had a more aggressive approach to getting the cotton crop out of the fields. One county agent said more of his farmers were harvesting cotton and peanuts simultaneously. This is a long-term key for us in improving quality.”

It appears, says Brown, that Georgia growers may have dodged a bullet in 2004.

“This crop is at least as good or better than the 2003 crop. We can congratulate ourselves in some respect, but the future is going to be very different. There will be tremendous pressure to improve and produce for the international market. We must go up from here and address the fiber length issue and all other issues of fiber quality. It's key as we produce more and more of the U.S. crop for export.”

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com