Cotton uniformity is elusive goal

Despite making great strides in improving the quality of their fiber in the past year, Georgia cotton producers are still finding uniformity to be an elusive trait. This was made all too clear when a textile manufacturing official announced recently that his company no longer would be purchasing Georgia cotton due to spinning problems associated with poor uniformity.

“We've all seen the numbers,” says University of Georgia Extension Economist Don Shurley. “Georgia's cotton quality was greatly improved in 2004 compared to past years except for uniformity. It has been a major concern because mills tend to use that as an indicator of “short fiber content”.

But the uniformity problem shouldn't overshadow the progress Georgia growers have made in the past year, says Shurley. “We've discussed with our growers, through research and educational meetings, what we feel like are things they can do about quality, based on our research. Not everything is within their control, but there are some things they can do to improve fiber quality, including timelier harvesting, controlling stinkbugs, and things of that nature. We feel like there are things we can do to potentially improve the fiber quality of our cotton, and our growers have done these things,” he says.

Still, uniformity continues to be an area of concern, he adds. “If you look at last year's quality data, all of the factors were greatly improved with the exception of uniformity. That indicates that something out there is causing low uniformity that may not necessary effect other fiber properties.”

“You could interpret the uniformity index as a measure of variability of fiber length. In other words, if all of the fibers in a sample were the same length, it would be 100. The combination of both staple length and uniformity is important, he says.

“Staple length is the average length of the largest 50 percent of the fibers in a sample. There's a balance there. If the staple is 34 or even better, then, mathematically, if your uniformity is marginal, there's still less chance that you may have a higher short-fiber content compared to a bale with staple length of 33.”

“I think uniformity represents the variability in fiber length within the sample.

I've tried to explain to growers that when you have a module or bale of cotton, you really have a mixture — a mixture of cotton up and down the plant as well as across the field. That module or bale of cotton is a mix of different positions on the plant, and different areas across the field. If our uniformity is low compared to other states, and certainly a high enough percentage of our cotton is below 80 that mills are concerned, then what is leading us to this variability?”

Last year, says Shurley, the staple length was better, but uniformity was about the same as in previous years. “We're not sure if this uniformity issue is related to our long growing season, in terms of trying to mature all of the different fruiting positions on the plant. It could be location or soil type — we just don't know. But it seems that uniformity is telling us that we have too much variability in the length of fibers.”

Growers and even merchants will tell you, says Shurley, that the discounts for low uniformity are not significant. They're relatively small, he says, compared to the discounts growers receive for being below base on other things such as strength, color and staple.

“But that could change. We may already be getting a discount in the form of a wider basis or just a loss of markets in general. We may already be getting some sort of a hidden discount or a hit on price in the form of a wider basis — something that is not reflected in the loan differences or spot market differences because those numbers are fairly small.”

Georgia cotton growers, like growers in other states, must look at the combination of both yield and fiber quality because that is what determines total dollars, says Shurley. But they are concerned about losing markets for their cotton.

“The biggest potential problem is that you have one or two mills who may choose not to buy Georgia cotton, and that snowballs into others choosing not to buy Georgia cotton. Then you have a real problem.

“I'm in no way discounting domestic mills, but let's not forget that almost 70 percent of the cotton we produce is going overseas. In addition to having to meet the needs of domestic mills, we also have to meet the needs of the mills in China, Turkey, Indonesia and other places that use a lot of our cotton. We're striving the meet the needs of all those markets.”

As for now, there doesn't seem to be an answer to Georgia's uniformity problem, says Shurley. “Our growers have made good progress on other factors, such as timely defoliation and harvesting and controlling stinkbugs. And still, uniformity appears to be a problem.”

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