Changing perceptions. Increasing profitability. Investing in the future.
Diverse concepts that on the surface seem to have little in common are actually the foundation upon which High Plains cotton growers are building a legacy that they believe will carry them to the top of the international cotton marketplace.
Thirty years ago the top of the marketplace was something that only a few would ever even dream of equating to the High Plains of Texas. After all, back then the cotton produced in this area was considered to be among the lowest of the low; cotton that was too short, too weak, and too trashy to be used in any high-end textile application.
Consequently, a West Texas cotton producer’s marketing experience usually meant seeing their crop discounted and automatically deemed suitable only for the least demanding textile products and processes.
My, how times have changed.
Today the reputation of West Texas cotton is significantly different thanks in large part to a uniquely West Texas partnership known as the Plains Cotton Improvement Program.
The PCIP was formed by forward looking High Plains cotton industry leaders tired of seeing the area characterized as the home of junk cotton. To combat that stereotype, cotton producers and leaders of the region’s warehouse industry joined forces and created the PCIP. Their goal was to actively work to improve the fiber and yield characteristics of the High Plains crop and to change the textile industry’s view of High Plains cotton.
By investing in the development of better cotton varieties for the future, the PCIP has raised producer awareness of the importance of the overall quality of the cotton they produce.
The success of the program is evident in the fact that 30 years after its start, the West Texas cotton crop can’t be overlooked and savvy textile buyers around the world have to compete to claim their piece of the area’s annual production, which averages around 3.5 million bales.
The program was initiated in 1982 through the efforts of the late Joel Hembree, former fiber technologist and statistician at Plains Cotton Cooperative Association in Lubbock, and Rex McKinney, long-time veteran of the High Plains cotton industry and former manager of Lubbock-based Farmers Co-op Compress.
Following that first year, warehouse leaders asked Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., the region’s certified producer organization, to assume control of the program and provide the administrative and financial oversight necessary to ensure wise use and investment of PCIP funds.
Since 1983 Plains Cotton Growers and the Plains Cotton Improvement Committee have provided administrative and financial oversight for the program. PCIC members are appointed by and serve at the discretion of the PCG President. In addition to the producer members of the PCIC, an industry advisory committee is also appointed and serves as an invaluable resource to the program by providing research and technical expertise during the PCIC decision-making process.
Funding for the program is provided through a voluntary 10-cent per bale assessment collected by High Plains cotton warehouses. Thanks to the oversight of the producers charged with directing the program the assessment rate has never been increased.
Another ingredient in the PCIP’s recipe for success is the good fortune to work with outstanding and highly respected cotton research scientists from the Lubbock area. Two of the finest are Dr. Jane Dever, Associate Professor/Cotton Breeder and Dr. Mark Kelley, Texas AgriLife Extension Cotton Agronomist.
Since the PCIP’s inception, the Lubbock cotton breeding program has released more than 400 improved cotton germplasm breeding lines into the industry pipeline. Over the past 30 years West Texas cotton producers have developed a true sense of ownership in the program and are realizing big benefits in the field.
During the early years of the PCIP program one of the initial focus areas was fiber strength.
It wasn’t long before new varieties began appearing that mirrored the characteristics of the PCIP breeding material and since that time the industry has seen even greater changes.
The cottonseed industry has changed significantly since the early 80’s when the West Texas market included almost three-dozen regional and national cottonseed companies that were actively developing varieties. Today, there are only 6-7 cottonseed companies still operating in the West Texas marketplace and a majority of them are companies with Beltwide and usually international market interests.
That shift has brought change and an almost overwhelming array of choices for producers who no longer simply look at yield and what is working for their neighbor when choosing varieties. While they still look at yield potential, they are also incorporating fiber quality, weed pressure and insect management capabilities into the mix.
In an effort to keep the PCIP pipeline loaded with traits such as improved yield, fiber quality and disease resistance, producers have found that communication is the key to success. Another key has been the development of a research model that allows growers to evaluate the relative performance of different seed technologies on an economically relevant scale.
Starting with the 2000 crop year, the PCIP expanded the scope of its activity to include large-plot evaluations of new cotton varieties and management systems.
Coordinated by Texas AgriLife Extension cotton agronomist Dr. Mark Kelley, the “Systems Agronomic and Economic Evaluation of Cotton Varieties” project is conducted at three locations across the Texas High Plains.
Primary test locations are planted under an irrigated production regime to lessen risk of loss.
The irrigated tests provide information specifically designed to help producers make increasingly complicated cotton variety and production system decisions.
In some locations secondary test plots are also planted under a dryland system. These plots, when weather and moisture conditions remain favorable, provide similar agronomic and economic comparisons for selected varieties under dryland conditions.
Since its inaugural year, Extension’s annual report incorporating the results of the PCIP System project has become a valuable part of the variety selection process for many High Plains cotton producers.
“The large-plot trial summary is among the most popular information resources Extension compiles each year,” says Kelley. “With the number of varieties available to producers on the rise and a number of new technologies coming online, it is critical that growers have an opportunity to see how up to a dozen different conventional and transgenic varieties perform under a consistent, farm-scale management routine with the only differences being those dictated by the transgenic capabilities of the different varieties.”
In addition to a standard yield comparison each variety is also evaluated on the basis of fiber quality, loan value and overall economic performance on a commercial scale.
“What growers are really embracing here in West Texas is the concept of yield being just the tip of the iceberg - the attention getter that leads them to investigate the capabilities of a particular variety in a little more depth,” adds Kelley.
The research programs of Dr. Dever and Dr. Kelley have also created a couple of notable spin-offs that are adding to the PCIP benefit package.
The first of the current PCIP research projects to evolve came from Dr. John Gannaway’s breeding program and collaboration with Texas AgriLife Research plant pathologist Dr. Terry Wheeler. Dr. Wheeler is conducting a number of cotton screening programs to identify varieties with resistance to common High Plains plant diseases such as Bacterial Blight and Verticillium Wilt as well as nematode resistance. The goal is to screen both commercially available cotton varieties as well as newly developed breeding lines to improve resistance to soil-borne insect and disease vectors.
The second spin-off project extends the analysis begun in the systems trials to the textile mill floor. The project is overseen by Dr. Eric Hequet, Associate Director of Texas Tech University Fiber and Biopolymer Research Institute (FBRI), and involves taking samples from the various cotton varieties selected by the cooperating producers and planted in the three large-plot study locations and performing a set of standardized spinning tests to determine the relative spinning performance of each.
While it is too early to know exactly what these spinning tests will show over time, early analysis indicates that High Plains cotton is able to perform quite well in even the most demanding textile operations.
The current work being done at the FBRI isn’t the first time that the PCIP has engaged the services of this premier textile research facility. Back in the early 1990’s the PCIP supported research on “Barky” cotton. That project was designed to determine the effects of bark content in cotton and if discounts being assessed on bark content were justified.
The Barky cotton study found that producers were indeed “taking a beating” on bark content. Results showed that: 1) there was a need to question the practice of separating bark from other trash content within the grading system; 2) the non-lint content of a bale of cotton is a fairly good measure of the usability of the bale within the textile mill; and, 3) that the non-lint content has a small effect on the overall spinability of cotton. The study was instrumental in the reduction of bark discounts in the CCC Loan schedules starting in the early 1990’s.
Thanks to their investment in the PCIP, High Plains cotton growers are working together to create benefits many may not even realize they are receiving and to dispel any lingering myths that exist about the value and quality of the cotton produced in the High Plains of Texas.
If there is one thing that High Plains cotton growers know it’s that taking an active part can yield substantial benefits. The positive returns they get from their PCIP sponsored research is a real and lasting foundation that High Plains producers can build on for years to come.
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Page updated by Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., 2014