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Georgia cotton good -- quality needs to improve

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Despite an arid midsummer and tropical storms in early fall, Georgia's 2004 cotton crop is surprisingly good. But the quality still needs improving for farmers to consistently sell their crop on the competitive world market.

About 200 farmers, specialists and industry representatives met in Tifton, Ga., Dec. 14 to learn more about Georgia cotton at the University of Georgia's 2004 Cotton Production Workshop.

Weather mixed

Weather in early summer was good to Georgia's crop, said Steve Brown, a cotton agronomist with the UGA Extension Service. But July and August turned hot and dry, generally bad for cotton.

Then September brought four tropical storms, all carrying strong winds and heavy rain -- 15 to 20 inches around southwest Georgia, Brown said.

At the time, farmers were just about ready to harvest a crop that was near maturity and didn't need more rain. The winds knocked some cotton to the ground, making it unharvestable.

Early losses from tropical storms alone were estimated at 20 percent. But farmers expect to make about 686 pounds per acre, about 15 percent less than last year's good harvest. Georgia will produce about 1.8 million bales.

"The crop turned out a lot better than we expected," Brown said. "It appears we dodged a bullet in 2004."

The United States is expected to produce 22.8 million bales, a record, Brown said. Nine out of 17 cotton-growing states will have record cotton production this year.

Quality better?

Overall, Georgia's 2004 cotton quality was good, especially in color and strength, he said. The state's farmers sprayed to control stinkbugs this year. CAES research has found that stinkbugs can damage fiber development.

Timely defoliation and harvest of the crop, Brown said, seemed to improve the crop's quality.

But Georgia's cotton still fell short in one important grading category: uniformity, the length and consistency of the fiber.

Since 1999, textile mills have complained that Georgia's cotton doesn't run well through newer, high-speed mills. It was reported last year that some mills will stop buying it because of this.

"There is a perception out there that Georgia cotton will perform worse in the mills than other cotton," said South Bryan, who buys cotton for Avondale Mills.

Avondale hasn't run enough of Georgia's 2004 crop through its mills to know how it will perform, Bryan said. But if it runs poorly, Georgia's stigma for poor cotton will only get worse.

World cotton

The U.S. textile industry continues to dwindle. Two of every three bales of cotton produced in the United States now have to find a foreign buyer, said Don Shurley, a UGA Extension cotton economist. Just a few years ago, only one of three bales was sold abroad. China continues to need foreign cotton to supply its growing textile industry. But farmers there expect a large crop this year, about 30 million bales.

This and other global factors have dropped cotton prices to around 40 cents per pound, down from 68 cents per pound in January, he said.

"But with the size of this crop," Shurley said, "it could be worse."

If the world produces as much cotton next year as it did this year, prices will likely be worse, he said. But if they don't, prices could be at least 10 cents per pound higher.

Not all of Georgia's cotton is of questionable quality, said Phillip Jost, UGA Extension Service cotton agronomist. Some is excellent.

The UGA cotton team and Georgia Cotton Commission will begin giving the Georgia Quality Cotton Award annually next year. Cotton ginners will nominate farmers in three categories related to the number of acres grown. The award is sponsored by Bayer Crop Sciences.

(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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