EDITOR'S NOTE — Georgia — which tied with Mississippi this past year for second in U.S. cotton production — once enjoyed a reputation within the cotton industry for high-quality fiber. But that's no longer the case. The quality of the state's cotton has declined in recent years, to the point of some textile mills avoiding the purchase of Georgia cotton and farmers losing money due to deducts in certain grade categories. In this sixth installment of a ongoing series, Southeast Farm Press takes a closer look at Georgia's fiber quality problems and what is being done to avoid the stigma of poor quality cotton..

Southwest Georgia farmer Jimmy Webb knows from tough experience what a difference timely harvesting can make in the quality of a cotton crop.

“Getting the crop out on time is very important in maintaining quality,” says Webb, who grows 1,500 acres of cotton in Calhoun County. “The minute the boll opens, deterioration of the fiber begins.

“I was a peanut grower before I started growing cotton, and I'd harvest my peanuts before moving to my cotton. About six years ago, we had some bad weather come through our area. Our cotton was ready to pick, but we were busy harvesting peanuts. I made a change the next year and started picking cotton and peanuts when they were ready. I don't have enough people, but that's what we try to do.”

Many Georgia farmers apparently haven't learned the same lesson, as poor harvest timing continues to be at least one significant cause of losses in cotton quality.

“If there's one thing I could change about what we do in Georgia, it would be to get the crop out in a faster fashion. If we could make a small change or improvement, it could mean millions of more dollars in the pockets of Georgia growers,” says Steve M. Brown, University of Georgia Extension cotton specialist.

Making those small improvements could be more important than ever this year, says Brown. “Weather has been much more stressful this year than in 2003. Drought and extreme heat have been more prevalent this year than last, with a significant number of days with temperatures of more than 95 degrees and heat indexes of more than 100 degrees. My guess is that we're not going to have as good fiber quality this year as last year — I hope I'm wrong,” he says.

Data from this past year shows that cotton uniformity was lower in the Macon, Ga., classing office than in most other U.S. classing offices. And it's not a new phenomenon, says Craig Bednarz, University of Georgia plant physiologist.

“Some mills try not to buy Georgia cotton,” says Bednarz. “Certainly there are differences in the Southeast and the Mid-South in terms of production practices and soil types. But we're trying to find out what specifically is causing this problem in Georgia.”

In examining cotton harvesting data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Bednarz says that for the five-year average, Mississippi and Louisiana are about 90 percent harvested by week 43 or 44, while Georgia is around the 60-percent mark.

Looking at the most active days for planting and harvesting, the ag statistics service reports that Georgia farmers plant cotton from April 25 to May 25, and they plant peanuts at about the same time. Producers in Georgia harvest peanuts from Sept. 10 to Oct. 15, and they harvest cotton from Oct. 5 to Nov. 15.

“In the past, we've planted our peanuts and cotton at the same time, and both of these crops take about the same number of days to mature. We've been going after our peanuts and letting our cotton sit in the field, and this delay in harvesting is costing us,” he says.

In a three-year study, Bednarz says researchers machine-picked cotton at various stages of crop maturity and at various stages of weathering.

“The first year — after we harvested the cotton — we ginned it on a small table-top gin in Tifton. In the last two years of the study, we shipped the cotton to the ARS spinning lab in Stoneville, Miss. Our goal was to see when the maximum lint yield and the maximum adjusted gross income occurred in each of the three years of the study.”

In 1998, the maximum lint yield occurred when the crop had achieved 100-percent open bolls. However, the maximum adjusted gross income occurred when harvest aides were applied at 61-percent open bolls.

“For every week we waited after the first week of 100 percent opened bolls, we lost 18 pounds of lint per acre per week. And for each week we waited past 61 percent to apply defoliants, we lost about $15.50 per acre in adjusted gross income.

“These numbers are out of sync, but remember that we ginned this cotton on a small table-top gin. We were losing money in our adjusted gross income due to low base-grade fiber quality faster than we were making money from increasing yield. Had we ginned this cotton in a manner consistent with a commercial process, that probably wouldn't have occurred.”

In 1999 and 2000, the yield and adjusted gross income were more consistent, says Bednarz. “In 1999, we maximized yield and adjusted gross income at about 76 to 77 percent open bolls when we applied our harvest aides. In 1999, we lost 13.8 pounds of lint per acre per week for every week we waited past this point. We lost $6.74 in adjusted gross income per acre for every week we waited past 77 percent open bolls.”

In 2000, the study showed that 57 pounds of lint per acre per week were lost past 89 percent open bolls. “We lost $20.32 per acre for every week we waited past 84.7 percent open bolls. We were losing money as the crop sat out in the field and weathered. This is due not only to losses in lint yields but also to losses in fiber quality. Just about every fiber quality parameter we measured decreased as the crop sat in the field.”

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com