From preposterous to positively. Texas Producing Quality Cotton?
Texas growers explain to textile mill owners from around the world how they produce the fiber quality needed for high-speed spinning equipment and value-added finished goods.
February 23, 2009
Ten years ago, it wouldn’t have happened – couldn’t have happened. The idea would have been ridiculous, and no one in the U.S. cotton industry would’ve believed it. But things have changed during the last decade, turning a preposterous situation into the market-defining force that it is.
So when three Texas cotton growers told international spinning mill representatives about the quality of their cotton during Certified FiberMax’s Quality Summit last December in Dubai, it was a clarion call for all those involved in the U.S. cotton industry. The market isn’t changing – it has already changed. If you aren’t thinking about international markets and fiber quality, then you probably aren’t growing cotton.
“Five years ago, I would not have been invited to a meeting on quality cotton, because we couldn’t grow quality cotton in Texas. But FiberMax came on the scene, and suddenly we were growing high quality cotton with higher yields. And that changed a lot of things for us,” Lamesa cotton producer Kelli Merritt told more than 100 mills representatives from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Turkey.
Levelland producer Steve Newsom agreed there has been a paradigm shift in Texas from producing the most cotton for the least amount of money to a management program that invests in quality from seed to harvest.
“In the past, the High Plains of Texas had a black eye when it came to quality, but when Bayer brought FiberMax to the High Plains, I don’t think they realized the results they were going to get. Years ago, intense management was required just to survive, so when we used those management techniques with FiberMax, it produced outstanding results and phenomenal grades.”
For many textile mills, these higher-grade, longer-staple cottons are what they demand to maximize the speed and efficiency of their machinery. Contamination is also a major issue, as trash accumulated during harvest and ginning can cause major slowdowns in the spinning process. Corpus Cristi grower Walter Priestly said he addresses this problem by spindle-picking his crop and only ginning it where other growers do the same.
With the investment and extra effort, does Priestly see a competitive or pricing advantage for his crop? The answer is yes.
“We have taken steps to segregate and separately market our quality South Texas FiberMax cotton from that of lesser quality cotton grown in the area. Our plan is to replace some of the declining California Upland SJV acreage with our FiberMax varieties which demonstrate similar characteristics. The continued emphasis on quality has expanded our market and produced premiums. These premiums keep us focused on producing quality cotton that is in demand,” Priestly said.
Priestly markets his cotton through Queensland’s FiberMax-only marketing pool, which he said has brought premiums in the past. But even without the premium, the better grades give these producers a competitive advantage in a marketplace that is increasingly more difficult to navigate. You can find success, but it is going to take a revised strategy.
Declining demand from U.S. textile mills is permanent, but global demand continues to rise. On the supply side, global production is growing in China and India, creating supply competition in the mills’ backyards. If U.S. growers want to compete against producers from around the world, they will have to produce a superior product to differentiate themselves from the international competition. That will take management throughout the process.
It Begins With the Seed
For these Texas growers, they differentiate their final product from the moment they plant their seed. Quality isn’t something in the back of their minds – it is at the forefront, driving management and investment decisions from the beginning through ginning.
“It is a whole process that begins with the seed,” Priestly said. “When you start with the crop, you begin with quality in mind. You make sure that you have the fertility, and later that you have the plant height. It’s not just one thing, it is the whole process. And if you have a choice, you choose fiber quality at every stage of the production.”
Newsom also takes a broader view that begins before his previous crop is harvested. To produce quality cotton, you have to manage year-round, he said, maximizing the best management practices recommended by industry and research.
“My decisions start 6-8 months before planting. Before we finish this crop, we are already looking to the next one. The management has become intense, but we are seeing the results of it,” Newsom said. “There is a new mentality of cotton production in Texas. For generations, we produced lower quality cotton, and our granddads and dads coached us to produce the cheapest crop we could that would produce the greatest number of pounds. But FiberMax offered us a tool that gave us results that we had never seen before.”
Quality may begin with the seed and continue with best management and harvest practices, but Newsom believes growers need to be more aware of the handling and ginning process as well. A lot can happen from boll to bale, and cotton producers should talk with their gins to ensure quality. Communication maximizes technology throughout the production process, facilitating a win-win situation for all involved.
“Quality starts in the field, but later in the process, you need to stay with the gins that are using the best and latest technology,” Newsom said. “If you are going forward with technology to produce and harvest the best crop, and your gin isn’t moving with you in that direction, then you need to move on. I try to stay up on ginning technology, because if there is a link we are missing, then our gin is going to change.”
Texas FiberMax producers Steve Newsom, Kelli Merritt and Walter Priestly give their views during a panel discussion with more than 100 international mill representatives during the Certified FiberMax Quality Summit in Dubai last December.