Cotton can be a temperamental king of crops, abdicating the throne whenever there’s a gyration in the market.

So now that it’s back on top, is there enough ginning capacity in the South to handle the anticipated wall-to-wall plantings?

In Alabama, cotton acres are projected to increase this year by 21 percent from 2010, to 410,000 acres; in Georgia, growers intend to plant 1,450,000 acres in 2011, up 9 percent from last year. And in the Florida Panhandle, cotton acreage is pegged at 100,000 this year, up 8,000 acres or 9 percent over 2010.

Cotton acreage increases are expected in every state, for a total of 12.6 million acres, 15 percent above last year. The largest increase, at 548,000 acres, is expected in Texas. Acreage increases of more than 100,000 acres are expected in North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi.

University of Georgia Extension Economist Don Shurley expects there will be ample ginning capacity in his state.

“If there is any shortage in ginning capacity this year, it might apply more to the Mid-South. But there shouldn’t be a problem in Georgia,” says Shurley. “Some of our gins may or may not be operating at capacity. But there’s no doubt the infrastructure is still in place in Georgia to handle the acreage increases this year.”

Gin numbers in Georgia have held fairly steady in recent years, at about 58 to 60, he says. “We might have had one or two closings, with one of the gin companies closing one of two locations. There definitely had been a downward trend in cotton acreage since 2005-2006, and I think the USDA planting intentions for this year may be on the low side. But our ginners should be able to handle whatever the final number might be,” says Shurley.

In north Alabama’s cotton-rich Tennessee Valley, the problem this year might be getting the cotton crop planted rather than getting it all ginned, says Auburn University Extension agronomist Charles Burmester. Growers in the region have seen a very wet and windy early spring, and they’re running behind in their planting.

“On average, farmers are getting into their fields only a couple of days a week. In the eastern part of the Valley, very little corn has been planted and some of those growers might opt to plant cotton instead. But we’ll have enough gins to take care of it if we can get it all planted,” he says.

Some gins needed acreage increase

Some of the gins in the Tennessee Valley need an acreage increase this year to get back closer to full capacity and to help with their economic feasibility, says Burmester.

“It’ll be good for our ginners here, and I don’t foresee any problems. There have been a few gin closings in the region in recent years, but most of the larger gins have continued running. The big ones still won’t be ginning as much as they did six or seven years ago.

“Cotton acreage really plummeted in the Tennessee Valley two years ago, and we probably won’t ever see cotton reach the levels we once saw. There are just too many other crop options now. Soybeans are doing really well here, and growers have gotten into good rotations. We won’t ever again see cotton in every field, every year, and that’s a good thing,” he says.

One Tennessee Valley farmer who has had a vested interest in the viability of cotton ginning in the region is Mike Tate, whose family farming operation is a principal owner in a local gin.

He agrees that adequate ginning capacity won’t be an issue this year. “Most growers are sticking to a corn rotation, and there’s a lot wheat planted here. We have a good infrastructure now for grain crops, and those crops have been good to the farmers here. I don’t think we’ll see an astronomical increase in cotton acres, and there should be plenty of ginning capacity to take care of what’s harvested,” he says.

Tate says his gin has processed about 12,000 bales in the past three years or so, and with an average crop, they could see as many as 15,000 bales or better this year. He points out that five years ago, that number was closer to 35,000 to 40,000 bales per year.

“We spent money becoming more efficient in the ginning operation, and then the bottom dropped out of the acreage. So we have continued to make improvements, and we’re ready and waiting for this year’s crop,” he says.

In Mississippi, although there has been a 34 percent decrease in the number of cotton gins in operation since 2000, Extension Economist John Michael Ray doesn’t foresee any problems this year, because after a significant drop, cotton acreage has stabilized in the past two years.

“There is enough ginning capacity in Mississippi to handle the acreage increase here this year. Cotton acreage has climbed gradually in the past two years. If acreage does increase to the point to where more ginning capacity is needed, those that have gone idle in recent years could be re-tooled to fill that need,” he says.

But Ray doesn’t believe Mississippi’s cotton acreage will ever return to its once-lofty levels for two reasons. “One, I don’t think the current cotton prices can be sustained at this level, and two, farmers in the state have made a substantial investment in their grain infrastructure, with many new bins being erected in recent years,” he says.

phollis@farmpress.com