As a grower, Woody Anderson knows a 3-5¢ premium for high-quality cotton can mean the difference between profit and loss. And as chairman of the National Cotton Council (NCC), he realizes the importance of promoting new cotton quality research needed to help U.S. cotton compete in the ever-widening global marketplace.

Anderson farms at Colorado City, TX, but as NCC chairman he also serves as U.S. cotton industry liaison to foreign cotton buyers whose demands for high-quality fiber are growing. He appreciates being able to talk up U.S. cotton quality, which is also a major research topic at the USDA-ARS Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC) in New Orleans.

“NCC has a cotton quality task force that is actively working with the SRRC to look for better fiber quality,” says Anderson, who farms about 3,000 acres with brother Randy.

Cotton Incorporated reports that cotton is enjoying its strongest position ever in the textile market.

Market share has grown to 60% in the U.S. and has higher mill consumption than any other fiber worldwide. Innovative marketing strategies and continuous product research, both targeting the needs of the consumer, have made it possible.

The ARS has always been charged with cotton research programs. When nylon and other synthetics were cutting into cotton's market share in the 1950s, scientists there were the first to produce “wash-and-wear,” no iron cotton garments. They also developed flame retardant fabrics. With the need for higher quality fibers, the attention now centers on determining which cotton varieties and germplasm traits, both domestic and foreign, produce the longer, stronger and more uniform fiber sought by textile mills.

“About five years ago two-thirds of U.S. cotton was grown for processing in our own textile mills,” says Anderson. “But with the huge increase in cotton purchases from China and other nations, about two-thirds of our cotton is now sold as export. And those foreign mills want higher quality.”

Alfred French heads the SRRC Cotton Structure and Quality Research Unit. He says, “We are now acquiring more and more samples of cotton for fiber quality studies in our labs. This enables scientists here and those visiting to have access to a large database from which to conduct research for all types of characteristics that can impact fiber quality.”

One problem faced by domestic producers is mechanical harvesting that can sometimes damage fiber when it's picked or stripped.

“We often compete with hand-picked cotton on an international scale that requires less cleaning and results in less fiber damage at ginning,” says Devron Thibodeaux, SRRC research physicist. “We're now able to examine the characteristics of these international varieties and test them one-on-one against domestic cotton.”

Physiologist Gayle Davidonis is testing fibers to determine which have higher quality and which can better handle harvesting and the ginning process.

“In testing varieties grown over parts of the Midsouth, we're looking at fiber length, strength, maturity and uniformity,” she says, noting that her work also involves Louisiana State University scientists. “More uniform fiber has less breakage and fewer inadequacies. We've found that the longest fibers are not necessarily the most uniform, and that when you increase strength you increase uniformity.”

High Volume Instrument (HVI) systems are widely used to describe cotton quality. HVI tests for micronaire, length and strength. Tests also analyze color, trash, extraneous matter and preparation.

With the SRRC's enhanced fiber quality evaluation laboratory, researchers can examine all phases of cotton quality — from baled fiber through dyed fabric — under one roof. “We are able to look at the utility of certain measurements that are desirable internationally, but not necessarily information available from HVI,” says Thibodeaux.

Samples are taken from major domestic varieties, cotton breeder lines at the USDA Stoneville, MS, center and other locations, as well as international cottons, those that are hand and mechanically picked. Samples weighing as little as 15 lbs. are being taken through the entire textile process.

“By having good science you're in a better position to support or demonstrate the quality of all samples,” says Thibodeaux.

Davidonis says the program will provide commercial and public cotton seed breeders with new information to hopefully enhance their ability to produce higher quality cotton. “We see some cotton on the market that has excellent length but is low in strength or has excessive neps (small knots of entangled fibers that can reduce quality),” she says. “We need to get the total fiber package that addresses all fiber problems.”

Quality is a major issue for cotton sold to China, which is expected to buy 5 million bales of U.S. cotton this year, an amount equal to nearly one-third of the U.S. crop. When China announced it would institute new mandatory standards for short fiber content and nep count as measured by tests not used in international trade, it concerned the NCC and USDA. The time-consuming tests created a potential trade barrier for U.S. cotton.

The SRRC research team helped soothe the problem by working directly with Chinese cotton officials to help them better understand the reliability of their quality test measures.

French says large upgrades in testing equipment in recent years have helped improve quality testing and help researchers to distinguish “broken fiber” from “short fiber.”

One possible detriment of better testing capabilities is the potential for more discounts for growers. “There's always that fear among growers that there can be more ways to get discounted,” says French.

“That's the flip side of premiums for higher quality cotton,” says Anderson. “But if the world wants higher quality cotton, it's important for us to produce it. With the work being done by USDA, universities, the NCC, Cotton Incorporated and private companies, that can be accomplished.”