Virginia cotton growers are playing the numbers in their search for high yielding, high-quality varieties, and are planting varieties that combine fiber quality and yield, says Johnny Parker of the Commonwealth Gin in Windsor, Va.

The move away from high-mike, low-staple length cotton is already showing up in the fields and will likely show itself in larger numbers next season, Parker believes.

For example, in 2000 many Virginia growers planted significant acre of Paymaster 1218, Parker says. While the yield of this variety was good, deductions from short staple caused producers to limit the acreage of 1218 dramatically for 2001.

On the positive side, Virginia growers are seeing results from the FiberMax varieties in regard to quality and yield, Parker says.

The difference is, producers can look at the grade components of thousands of bales of cotton ginned at Commonwealth and see how varieties are performing, Parker says.

Most of the cotton has had good staple in Virginia for 2001. About a fourth of the state had some high mike cotton, but as a whole the micronaire levels have fallen just below discount levels. It is still in the upper 40s on more than half of the crop.

From his desk at Commonwealth Gin, Parker talks about the importance of micronaire and staple to the bottom line of the farmers who gin here.

Parker calls the micronaire component “fiber diameter. The thicker the fiber is, the larger the mike number.

“From our experiences over the past several years, we've learned that mike can be managed,” Parker says.

About 50 percent of the mike issue is influenced by variety and the other 50 percent sees to be based on growing season and environment.

“We have some acreage pretty far north, and some years we've had to defoliate cotton at 20 percent open boll,” Parker says. “When we do this, we still get a good yield, but the micronaire is quite a bit lower. Sometimes this is helpful.

“If it looks like the season is going to have high micronaire, then one strategy is to defoliate when the cotton is only 50 percent to 60 percent open instead of waiting until it gets 75 percent open,” Parker says. “Usually, the high mike crops are the early-maturing crops anyway. Micronaire is an indication of maturity and we figure that high mike cotton gets over-mature.

“The more the cotton is open, the higher the mike will be,” Parker says.

“We had some very mature cotton in southern Virginia and the northeastern area of North Carolina,” Parker says. “When the late August rains came, the plants began growing again and by September it looked like a very immature crop. This caused us to delay defoliation. Unfortunately, the late growth did not result in more bolls and by the time these fields were defoliated, the harvestable cotton was almost 100 percent open, which resulted in 50 to 51 mike values on some varieties and other varieties went into the high 50s.”

In early November, however, the statewide mike average for Virginia was 4.7. Only 28 percent of the crop had a mike rating of 5.0 or higher.

“We still have a lot of vulnerability in relation to quality and yield, but we've made a lot of improvement in just one year,” he says.

Producers who gin with Commonwealth have the ability to look at how the varieties perform.

From a database of “thousands upon thousands” of bales ginned at the Windsor facility, Parker can show them the numbers.

“We are comparing varieties that are grown in our growing conditions against one another,” Parker says.

At the top of the list, varieties that have 36 staple and mike levels as low as 4.6. As his finger moves down the page, however, the staple drops in some cases to 32. “As we switch varieties, the mike goes up markedly to 5.8 or 5.6, spelling discounts,” Parker says. “The cotton we're looking at was ginned within an hour of each other.”

The varieties at the top of the list are FiberMax, Parker points out. Particularly, FM 958 and FM 966 fit best in Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. Those varieties have been yielding 1,200 pounds per acre, and have consistently performed with mike ratings below 5.0 and staple readings above 35.

“FiberMax varieties have a number of desirable traits,” Parker says. “Lower mike, longer staple and more consistent uniformity.”

He says growers have been getting $10 premiums based on quality.

Out in the field, “FiberMax looks like it's not going to do well,” Parker says. “It stays tight in the boll doesn't fluff out as good. That's why farmers are pleasantly surprised after ginning. The best cotton modules are weighing heavy. Some of the farmers have joked that the picker must be making cotton because there is not way these fields can be making this many modules.”

Parker expects the FiberMax varieties will have a dramatic effect on production in the Upper Southeast.

“Producers are going to choose varieties that give them yield and quality,” Parker says.

He points to two varieties to illustrate his point, Paymaster 1218 and Suregrow 521. “A lot of people planted 1218 last year. This year, less than 5 percent of the acreage was planted to this variety. The reason was high mike and low staple length.

“Suregrow 521 is bad for short staple,” Parker says. “I expect its acreage will be down in Virginia next season as well.”

Other varieties that are doing quite well include, Deltapine 451, Deltapine 436 and Paymaster 1199. “There are many other good choices for us that yield very high and the quality is acceptable,” Parker says. “Our winter analysis will consider value per acre and take yield and quality as well as seed weight into account.”

Although he doesn't refer to himself as a “ginner,” Parker does underscore the importance of the process.

For the past three years, Commonwealth has used “IntelliGin,” a system that tracks moisture, trash and grade every 15 seconds while the cotton is being ginned. The gin is able to make adjustments based on the readings of the system.

By using this system, the cotton is ginned using just the right amount of drying. Each bale is different and the gin is constantly adjusting to the conditions of the cotton. This process exceeds judgments a person can make, Parker says.

“Gentle ginning' has a major impact on quality,” Parker says.

“IntelliGin helps maintain the quality that the farmer brings to the gin, preserves fiber quality and maximizes bale value,” Parkers says.

Farmers are also able to use the information generated by the IntelliGin system to help them address quality issues and variety selection, Parker says.

“We've got two customers: the mills and the farmers and they want the same thing, the highest quality and the best price and value they can get,” Parker says.

The search to combine yield and quality into a package is fostering cooperation within the industry, Parker feels.

“I'm pleased at the information I've been getting from seed companies,” he says. “Everyone is aware of the problem and they're working toward the goal.”

Parker believes the industry moved strongly toward developing genetically engineered varieties based on the major needs of the farmer, which was basically the demand for Bollgard and Roundup Ready technologies. “As we move forward, there is an obvious focus now on breeding varieties that have these new technologies as well as good quality. I am also comfortable that these new technologies do not sacrifice quality, just need to continue to get them into the right varieties.”

“The industry is responding to the producers and the mills,” Parker says. “Communication in the industry among Extension, the National Cotton Council and the cooperative spirit between the different segments is a strength.

“The cotton industry will come back stronger than ever because of these steps toward improving quality,” Parker says.

In making decisions about varieties, producers are looking at performance, Parker says.

“This will lead them toward varieties that will offer yield, quality and the right combination of new technology to meet their needs,” Parker says. Gins such as Commonwealth are providing the information for producers to be able to make decisions.

Meanwhile, seed companies and other segments in the industry are on the road in search of solutions to the problem of quality.