One-third of the annual Cotton Incorporated budget is dedicated to agricultural research with funds earmarked to help farmers produce more, higher quality cotton more efficiently.

The other two-thirds, said Cotton Incorporated President and CEO Berrye Worsham, helps farmers find profitable markets for their product. Cotton breeders from across the Sunbelt, beneficiaries of some of the Cotton Incorporated research dollars, had a chance recently to hear about and see some of the research efforts under way at the Cotton Incorporated headquarters in Cary, N.C.

“Our first order of business includes improving fiber length, strength, and micronaire, along with emphasizing color and reduced trash,” said Roy Cantrell, Cotton Incorporated vice president for agricultural research.

Cantrell spoke during the 2006 Cotton Breeders’ Tour, a trek breeders make every other year to one of four production regions across the cotton belt. The group evaluates public and private breeding programs and exchange information and insights.

Cantrell said Cotton Incorporated efforts currently focus on quality. “We want to add value to raw fiber,” he said. “Consequently, variety improvement takes a significant portion of the 2006 research budget.

He said a second order of business includes studies of length distribution, short fiber content, fineness, maturity, and stickiness. “We also will look at spinning performance and see how research affects it,” he said.

350 projects

As many as 350 projects are on tap for the 2006 season. The cotton industry must improve quality to meet market demands, he said.

Other studies will include heat tolerance and production efficiency. “We continue to look at integrated pest management, crop termination programs, plant growth regulators and computer models such as Cotman,” he said.

Researchers across the Cotton Belt also will look at “high zone syndrome,” a problem in many cotton fields where growth is not uniform, due mostly to variable field conditions. Studies show that yields vary significantly in high vigor zones. “The tendency is to target low-yield areas in the field,” Cantrell said. “Unfortunately, yield potential is not there. We want to focus on mid-to-high zones and determine the benefits we can get from precision agriculture.”

Cantrell said sticky cotton continues to be an important issue and may be more so with a new whitefly biotype that appears resistant to insect growth regulators. “It may take three years to develop a management plan for this pest,” he said. “It could be a serious threat.”

Cantrell said research into production economics will look at risk management, systems analyses, and record keeping for management.

“Much of our research comes from the demands of the export market,” Cantrell said. Other studies will look at cotton seed feed efficiency and aflatoxin. Cotton Incorporated also continues its mission to expand cotton use.

Demand, pricing

“We want to understand all we can about cotton demand and pricing,” said Mark Messura, Vice President, Strategic Planning. “We’re looking at effects of the WTO and China, the largest producer and the largest consumer of cotton. We don’t think China will produce all they need. Historically, China has purchased about half of its needs from the United States.”

Messura said Cotton Incorporated also tracks fiber performance at the retail level. “The women’s and girls’ market is the biggest target for increased share,” he said. “In the United States, that segment is 50 percent cotton versus 75 percent for men and boys.”

“We have an initiative to increase cotton’s share of the women’s and girls’ market,” said Worsham. Females from 18 to 34 years old represent a key market target. “We also want to enhance cotton’s fashion presence in the market.”

Messura said apparel prices in the United States have declined. “It’s been a robust decline created by a shift to mass merchants, like Wal-Mart. Also, we see a ‘wait for a sale’ mentality among consumers.”

Low-cost importers also play a role in falling apparel prices, he said.

Worsham said another facet of the Cotton Incorporated mission is to add value to the product by “providing technology and information to mills. We also want to heighten consumer awareness of cotton and assure a positive association with cotton fabrics. We work to increase industry’s awareness of consumer demand.”

Worsham said Cotton Incorporated helps create a better product then provides better information to the consumer about that product.

Synthetics challenge

Messura said, even though exports now account for some 70 percent of U.S. cotton sales, foreign competitors are not the main challenge to cotton. Synthetic fibers are.

A new Cotton Incorporated initiative strives to increase awareness of cotton’s advantage and create more demand internationally. He said as countries improve their economies, a growing middle class wants to replace synthetic fabrics with cotton.

The rising cost of oil may level the playing field, he said. “We expect oil prices to continue to climb,” he said. “That increase may create an opportunity for cotton prices to rise as synthetics (oil based) go up. The flip side is that a higher energy price adds to production costs for farmers.”

“Implementing new technology and increasing demand for cotton adds value to the entire industry,” said Don Bailey, vice president, textile research and implementation. Cotton Incorporated initiatives will include training at the retail level to demonstrate the advantages of cotton, he said. “We help mills find ways to reduce costs and maintain or improve quality.”

Charles Chewning, vice president, fiber management research, said a key CI goal is to increase demand through use of USDA high volume instrumentation (HVI) data. Better classing data, he said, improves mill efficiency and helps them “select the most cost effective cotton.”

Worsham said the Cotton Incorporated budget has remained relatively flat since 2000, around $63 million. “It will increase for 2006 because of increased production,” he said.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com