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Another Challenge For Cotton

By Fred Bourland
Keiser, Ark.
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Whenever I am asked to provide vi-sion or perspective regarding a subject, I am reminded of the daydreams that I had while hand-picking cotton in my youth. Hand-picking cotton provided youngsters the opportunity to daydream of a better life and provided the motivation to achieve that dream.

During one of my muses, I recall thinking that the ultimate in cotton harvesting would be to have one person for each row in the field. Thereby, you could pick one row and be finished with the field. My vision on that day had little connection with future reality. Over the years, my perspective has certainly expanded. I hope that my ability to envision the future has also somewhat improved.

The cotton industry has experienced cyclical good and bad times since I began working in cotton research as a graduate student in 1970. The bad times usually have some basic cause, and, like a sickness, could be addressed with a remedy. I have witnessed at least four major times of sickness that challenged the U.S. cotton industry.

The first malady occurred in years encompassing 1970 when several consecutive cool seasons made some folks suggest that we were headed for another ice age. This first malady was remedied by the development of short-season cotton varieties, associated short-season management systems and cyclical weather patterns. An unexpected bonus of the short-season varieties was that they yielded more than full-season varieties.

The second malady – overproduction and high carryovers – occurred in the early 1980s and was partly caused by remedying the first malady. The payment-in-kind (PIK) program in 1983 attempted to address this problem by paying cotton producers not to grow cotton. The PIK program successfully decreased U.S. cotton production but had only minor effects on world production and the price of cotton – clearly demonstrating that U.S. cotton production no longer predicated world supply and price of cotton. This second malady was subsequently remedied by increasing the consumption of U.S. cotton, which was primarily a result of the work of Cotton Incorporated.

The third malady occurred in the 1990s and was due to difficulty associated with controlling boll weevils and the worm complex (bollworms and budworms). Early season treatment for boll weevils eliminated natural enemies of worms, which led to added treatments for worms. The remedy was boll weevil eradication and Bt cotton.

The U.S. cotton industry is now suffering a fourth malady, which is a re-occurrence of the second malady, i.e. overproduction and high carryovers. How can we go from record low carryovers 18 months ago to (projected) record high carryovers? As a non-economist, I suggest a one-word answer – China, which is the No. 1 cotton producer and textile consumer. The Chinese cotton industry operates on a much larger scale than ours and certainly affects our market. Fairly large U.S. cotton acreage reductions are anticipated in 2013 – which will lead to lower overall production and a likely price improvement. Unfortunately, acreage reduction is causing the loss of some infrastructure.

One long-term solution may involve increased use of air-jet spinning. Air-jet spinning produces yarn at a higher speed than rotor spinning (thus, lower cost), and produces a yarn quality comparable to ring spinning. But air-jet requires lower, more uniform and stronger fiber than is produced by most of our current cotton varieties.

Our challenge is to develop and produce high-yielding cottons that meet these quality standards. Such cottons will strengthen the U.S. textile industry and provide a strong base for U.S. cotton production. Our industry has a rich history of maneuvering through challenging times, and I am confident that it will continue to do so.

– Fred Bourland, Keiser, Ark.
   fbourland@uaex.edu


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