After being beaten up all year over the quality of their cotton, Georgia growers finally are hearing some good news as the 2004 crop is harvested and classed. “A little less than half or our cotton has been classed, and altogether it's looking good,” said University of Georgia Extension cotton specialist Steve M. Brown in mid-November.

Georgia's cotton quality problems have been the subject of much discussion in the industry this year, especially this past summer when several textile mills declared that they wouldn't be buying the state's cotton.

Workshops and field days have been held throughout Georgia during the past year, with Extension specialists stressing the importance of variety selection, pest control, and timely harvest and defoliation in insuring the quality of this year's crop.

“If we look at staple, micronaire and strength, it looks pretty good — surprisingly good, given the growing and harvesting conditions our growers have seen this year,” says Brown. “Even in a normal year, these would be good numbers. Color grade looks pretty good, and length uniformity looks better than last year, though it's still trending towards the bottom when compared with all U.S. cotton.” With 46 percent of Georgia's cotton harvested, ginned and classed, this is how the state's crop was grading in the various quality parameters:

  • Color grade is on par or slightly better than last year, and much improved from 2002. Approximately 37 percent of the bales graded as of Nov. 4 were Color 31 or better while only about 11 percent graded below 41, despite weathering from storms.

  • Staple length appears much improved from 2003. The average staple as of Nov. 4 was 35, and only 9 percent of the bales graded were 33 and shorter. This compares to 22 percent in 2003 and almost one-third of the crop in 2002.

  • Uniformity also has improved. The crop graded as of Nov. 4 averaged 80.7 uniformity, and only 11 percent of the crop was below the minimum base of 80. The average fiber length was 28.1 compared to 27.5 for both 2003 and 2002.

  • Fiber strength is perhaps the biggest improvement when compared to last year and to 2002. Strength averaged 29.5 for the bales classed as of Nov. 4, and almost three-fourths of the bales have been “high” strength of 29 or better. Micronaire was up slightly and averaged 4.5 compared to 4.3 last years.

Some in the industry argue, says Brown, that the length uniformity index isn't the best measurement of some of the qualities desired by mills. “Still, we look better than in the past, and we're pleased about that,” he says.

All things considered, Georgia's cotton quality is looking surprisingly good thus far, he says, and Extension specialists and researchers are considering the possible factors in this improvement. “If you look back at the weather we've seen this year — especially the heat and drought in July and August — we shouldn't be better off in terms of quality,” says Brown. “And, given the wind and rain damage from Hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, we shouldn't be better off, but we are.”

Improved stinkbug management might be one reason for this year's better quality, he says. Stinkbug pressure wasn't nearly as severe as in 2003, and growers did a better job of control where there were problems.

“We're pleased at where we stand now in terms of quality. But we want to get better, and we're going to get better.”

Another possible factor in Georgia's improved cotton quality this year could be a “shift in mentality” among growers, says Brown. As the nation's largest peanut producer, some have said that Georgia's cotton quality problems lie with the fact that the state's farmers place a priority on their peanut crops, and that cotton sits too long in the field while peanuts are being harvested.

“Growers understood why some of these quality problems were occurring, and there was a greater urgency this year to get the crop out of the field on time. There was more of a willingness to defoliate and to pick earlier. This was hindered somewhat, of course, by the storms.”

One southwest Georgia county Extension agent reported that many of his growers, in anticipation of the approaching tropical storms, defoliated earlier than normal, and they discovered that this worked in their favor, says Brown.

“This crop was a couple of weeks or 10 days earlier than last year, and that was good and bad. Altogether, it probably was a negative for us because it set us up for more damage from the hurricanes.” Despite declarations by some textile mills this past summer that they wouldn't be buying Georgia cotton this year, the state hasn't been blacklisted throughout the industry, says Brown.

“People are still buying Georgia cotton. Some mills are saying there are things out there that we need to do better. But people still want to work with us and still want our cotton. Proximity is important to some of these buyers.”

Georgia's cotton yields have been somewhat disappointing in some areas of the state this year, while in other areas, yields are surprisingly better than was expected earlier in the harvest season, says Brown.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com