The 2006 Georgia cotton crop could best be termed “the comeback crop,” as growers exceeded all expectations in a drought-plagued year to make a near-record production and surprisingly good quality.

“We expected fiber quality to be a challenge because of weather conditions,” says Steve M. Brown, University of Georgia Extension cotton specialist. “And after estimating in mid-September that cotton would average about 200 pounds per acre in many areas, we're very pleased that Georgia growers averaged a little more than 820 pounds per acre.”

Brown spoke during the recent recognition banquet for the Georgia Quality Cotton Award, held this year at the Ritz Carlton, Reynolds Plantation, Ga.

In an effort to highlight that quality cotton can be and is produced in the state of Georgia and to inspire producers to aim for even higher quality, the University of Georgia Cotton Team, the Georgia Cotton Commission, Southeastern Cotton Ginners Association and USDA initiated the Georgia Quality Cotton Award that is sponsored by Bayer CropScience. The Georgia Quality Cotton Award provides a venue to identify not only high quality cotton that is being produced in Georgia, but also other quality-related management practices.

“The textile industry wants to buy our cotton cheap, but we don't want to be the supplier of cheap cotton,” says Brown. “We want to deliver a quality product, especially as we move towards delivering cotton to the international textile industry.”

Twelve producers from throughout Georgia were named the best growers of high-quality cotton in the state. They were aided in part by low insect pressure and a long, dry harvest season free of frost.

“This year was a strange year and cotton left in the field to mature yielded better than those acres picked earlier,” says Brown. “Our farmers have made a concerted effort to manage stinkbugs. They're right to link stinkbug populations with yield preservation and fiber quality.”

Cotton quality has changed over the years in different regions of the United States, he says. “If we went back 20 years or so, Texas probably would have been considered the dregs of U.S. cotton in terms of quality. FiberMax brought varieties to Texas that worked great, and they also changed the entire reputation of the Texas cotton production industry. They now are recognized around the world as growers of high-quality cotton, and their cotton is in demand,” says Brown.

Twenty years ago, he adds, Georgia's cotton quality was considered second only to that in the West, particularly Arizona and California. “Price is what everyone haggles over, but for the future, quality will be very important for us,” he says.

The Georgia Quality Cotton Award was started after reports of poor cotton quality surfaced in 2003, after which several U.S. textile mills expressed concern about the quality of Georgia cotton. The program serves two purposes: to showcase the excellent cotton produced and ginned in Georgia each year and identify what production practices are necessary to product high quality cotton.

The awards program has provided an opportunity to identify the producers and ginners dedicated to producing high-quality cotton, according to Don Shurley, University of Georgia economist.

“Statewide, our quality has improved and USDA data clearly supports that. When you look at the winners just in terms of their quality, what contributed to their nomination was good color grades and long staple. In some instances where quality was close, the strength made the difference.”

This past year was an “extraordinary” one for Georgia cotton producers, says Brown. Ninety-seven percent of the state's crop had a color grade of 41 or better. In addition, grass and bark was inconsequential, he says.

“If you look back 15 years or so, glyphosate-resistant cotton has almost made grassy cotton a thing of the past,” says Brown.

Other quality parameters include staple, strength and micronaire. “The challenge is there if we think about high micronaire and short staple. Given the growing season we experienced, we expected some very severe numbers in these two categories. But when all is said and done, about 20 percent of our crop was short staple and a little more than 20 percent went high micronaire. These aren't numbers to brag about, but considering what we thought we'd have, we have to be pleased.”

The number that represents an ongoing challenge for Georgia producers is uniformity, says Brown. “This is a measure of how consistent our fibers are in length. If fibers were identical in length, the uniformity number would be 100. Most of U.S. cotton is between 79 and 84. Historically, this is not a new thing.

“If you go way back, we probably were still one to one a half points below Mid-South cotton. We've done some investigating, and some of this seems to be due to geographical or longitudinal factors. These numbers trend lower if you go down to Georgia, south Alabama or Louisiana. We don't know if it's the long growing season or if it's a matter of making a top crop.”

Georgia's 2006 cotton crop — in modern times — is the highest bale production since about 1911 or 1914, says Brown. “That's incredible. It's probably going to be the third highest yield per acre we've ever recorded, and that's unbelievable. Our quality was good despite the harshness of the growing season. Without good rainfall and with high temperatures, we expected to see low staple and high mike. A lot of that can be attributed to the fact that the varieties we're growing today are better than what we were growing five years ago.”

The demand for high-quality cotton has been heard, he says, but it has been slow to achieve. “We can't snap our fingers and fix this problem — it's an ongoing challenge. If we think about what it takes to bring a new variety or new variety technology to the market, we're probably looking at from nine to 12 generations. And even if you go to the Central or Southern Hemisphere, you're talking about four and a half to six years. This is a difficult challenge, but we're seeing progress, and awards such as this help us to push this issue to the forefront and put it in the minds of producers, ginners and the entire industry.”

The interesting thing about this year's Georgia Quality Cotton Award winners, says Brown, is that several of them were picking cotton into December. “A couple of these growers were finishing on Dec. 10, and another finished on Dec. 20. Normally, we associate quality with an expedited, hurried harvest. We're going to capture more quality in the beginning and get out quickly. The unusual circumstances of this past year negated that — it almost rewarded slowness. But we made a comeback crop. Some of our late cotton was extremely good in terms of fiber quality.”

Every ginner in Georgia had the opportunity to nominate a producer for the Georgia Quality Cotton Award in each of three acreage categories: 1) less than 500 acres; 2) 500 to 1,000 acres; and 3) more than 1,000 acres. Once a grower is nominated and the packets are filled out, they were certified for completeness by the county agent.

Four regions

For the purposes of this award, the state is divided into four regions representing northwest, northeast, southeast and southwest locales. From these regions a winner was determined in each of the acreage categories, which resulted in 12 winners from across the state.

The 2006 winners include:

Category 1: Less than 500 acres

Area 1:

Grower: Ryan Henderson — Terrell County, 236 acres.

Average Loan Value — 57.69 cents.

Premium — 4.84 cents per pound

Gin: McCleskey Cotton Company.

Area 2:

Grower: Ratchford Hill Farms — Jefferson County, 240 acres.

Average Loan Value — 57.57 cents.

Premium — 4.57 cents per pound.

Gin: Bryant's Gin

Area 3

Grower: Derrell Bennett, Jr. — Cook County, 44 acres.

Average Loan Value — 57.89 cents.

Premium — 5.19 cents per pound.

Gin: BCT Gin

Area 4

Grower: Travis Braswell — Seminole County, 263 acres.

Average Loan Value — 56.84 cents.

Premium — 4.14 cents per pound.

Gin: Cloverleaf Gin

Category 2: 500 to 1,000 acres

Area 1

Grower: Lance Thompson — Pulaski County, 732 acres.

Average Loan Value — 56.58 cents.

Premium — 3.73 cents per pound.

Gin: Arabi Gin

Area 2

Grower: Brett & Brett Farms — Jefferson County, 690 acres.

Average Loan Value — 56.69 cents.

Premium — 3.69 cents per pound.

Gin: Farmer's Gin and Storage Company

Area 3

Grower: Charles Dodd — Brooks County, 655 acres.

Average Loan Value — 55.87 cents.

Premium — 3.17 cents per pound.

Gin: BCT Gin

Area 4

Grower: Wilbeth Farms — Seminole County, 530 acres.

Average Loan Value — 55.09 cents.

Premium — 2.39 cents per pound.

Gin: Cloverleaf Gin

Category 3: More than 1,000 acres

Area 1

Grower: Grimsley Farms — Terrell County, 1,200 acres.

Average Loan Value — 55.88 cents.

Premium — 3.03 cents per pound.

Gin: McCleskey Cotton Company

Area 2

Grower: J.H. Harrison Farms — Jefferson County, 1,078 acres.

Average Loan Value — 56.90 cents.

Premium — 3.90 cents per pound.

Gin: Farmer's Gin and Storage Company

Area 3

Grower: DeWitt Farms — Brooks County, 1,621 acres.

Average Loan Value — 55.17 cents.

Premium — 2.47 cents per pound.

Gin: BCT Gin

Area 4

Grower: Heard Family Farm — Seminole County, 1,186 acres.

Average Loan Value — 56.31 cents.

Premium — 3.61 cents per pound.

Gin: Cloverleaf Gin

Nomination packets for the 2007 season will be sent to gins across the state in the fall. At that time the nomination form could also be downloaded from the UGA Cotton Web Page at www.ugacotton.com.