TEXTILE MILLS with new spinning technology are demanding higher quality cotton and are paying more for it. This year, a loss of one color grade and one leaf score could cost a farmer more than $30 per bale.

That's why some cotton specialists contend that attempts to cut input costs may backfire in lower-quality cotton discounted at the gin - and that means a hit to a grower's bottom line.

"High fiber quality is everything," says Ben Scarborough, cotton grower and co-owner of Scarborough Farms, Kinston, N.C. "It's a consumer-oriented world, and consumers want as much for their dollar as the gin wants for its dollar. The last thing the world needs is more poor quality cotton. We need to raise the bar so U.S. products can be exported competitively.

"Each day, U.S. cotton competes in the world market against foreign fibers. Our cotton must fight for its position by maintaining a competitive advantage. Deliv-ering higher quality fiber gives the U.S. cotton industry an edge in being chosen above other cotton."

Scarborough believes in the extra effort to grow superior quality cotton because "at the end of the rainbow, there should be a premium."

He and other growers, as well as ginners, even have gone to the lengths of forming a new marketing association dedicated to producing high quality cotton from FiberMax seed varieties, which produce cotton with reduced short fiber content and desirable micronaire. They believe they will receive more for their high quality cotton.

Growers such as Scarborough invest in inputs including harvest aids to pull in bigger premiums.

In Texas, Dropp harvest aid is used for improved re-growth control. Dropp provides excellent defoliation in hot and humid conditions. It defoliates leaves in various stages - from immature squares and juvenile growth to mature leaves - while preventing fiber deterioration.

Dropp tank-mixed with Finish allows farmers to harvest three to five days earlier than with any other harvest aid.

Results across eight U.S. locations in 1999 prove the importance of inputs. The average value of total bales treated with Finish harvest aid receiving a premium equaled $8.73, and nearly 80 percent of the premiums associated with Finish averaged $10.49 per bale. Add that to the discounts of $13.20 per bale that competitive products generated and that equals a competitive advantage of $21.93 when using Finish versus competitive treatments.

Managing for fiber quality with Dropp and Finish harvest aids can make a big difference. By defoliating or removing leaves from cotton plants, growers can time mechanical harvesting to make it easier and more efficient. They can also reduce trash and the need for cleaning at the gin.

Earlier boll-opening allows growers to pick their crop at the height of fiber quality and weight. Dropp tank-mixed with Finish allows the field to be "harvest ready" faster than any other harvest aid. And earlier harvesting insures that the cotton is not exposed to the elements longer than necessary.

Ultimately, since fiber quality is affected by breeding and agronomic practices, specialists encourage growers to take a critical look at program and input costs.

According to one ag lender, Mike Wright, City Bank, Lubbock, Texas, banks look at the programs growers will be using - never to manage their operation, but to analyze the grower's track record and evaluate his potential for success.

Nearly all of the producers he works with use harvest aids to improve their crop.

"I have seen the numbers using harvest aids go up over the last few years," Wright says. "I think there are two reasons for the increase. First, cotton varieties have been bred to mature more quickly using the harvest aids to bring out higher fiber quality, and secondly because growers have seen the benefits of using harvest aids.

"They have achieved more weight, better quality, improved color and uniformity, longer staple, and they are able to get in and harvest earlier. Everybody's striving for quality because that's where you get more dollars."

Though quality has always been important today's market demands it. The efforts and expenses put into cotton to produce superior quality pay off. As Scarborough says, "Quality will never go out of style."

For additional information, visit www.cottonexperts.com, a new Website evolving into a one-stop resource for cotton marketing information.