If it ain't broke, don't try to fix it. It's as good a reason as any for keeping USDA's cotton classing system exactly the way it is. And many consider it to be the best, and most envied, system in the world.
On the other hand, a number of U.S. cotton gins are now accurately measuring cotton fiber qualities such as HVI length, leaf, color grade and strength, albeit for a different purpose than USDA.
At the gin, the technology is used to help the ginner make better decisions and maximize returns to the producer during ginning, a technology called gin process control.
The question many are asking is, “Why can't the technology at the gin be adapted and expanded and its information used as official USDA classing data?”
Norma McDill, USDA deputy administrator, cotton program, doesn't rule it out. But she said during a recent interview that any changes in the status quo “should demonstrate either a reduction in cost, an improvement in cotton quality measurement, or produce benefits beyond the capability of the present system.”
Currently, to be eligible for the Farm Service Agency's loan programs, U.S. cotton producers submit two cotton samples per bale through their gin to their local USDA classing offices. The cost for running the samples at a classing office is around $1.45 per bale.
Bale samples are conditioned and tested by USDA using High Volume Instrument (HVI) classing equipment. The quality data from that office are sent back to the gin and to Memphis to be compiled into a national data bank.
USDA uses calibration cottons and other methods to keep the instruments operating on the same level everywhere in the country.
The USDA system “is indeed the envy of the world,” said Preston Sasser, senior vice president and managing director for research at Cotton Incorporated. “The system produces data that are accepted by all segments of our industry for both the marketing and use of the cotton at the spinning mills.
“Why would we even consider changing a system that works so well and enjoys such a worldwide reputation of excellence?”
Sasser presented the pros and cons of a move to gin classing during Cotton Incorporated's EFS System Conference, in Memphis.
The biggest challenge facing so-called gin classing would be logistics, moving the function from 12 classing offices to 970 U.S. gins.
Sasser doesn't believe every gin could afford the change.
“About 15 percent of U.S. cotton gins process less than 5,000 bales a year; 31 percent, less than 10,000 bales; 56 percent, less than 20,000 bales a year; 27 percent, between 20,000 and 40,000 bales a year; and 15 percent, more than 40,000 bales.
“How many bales must a gin process to afford the capital and operating cost of classing at the gin? Is it 10,000 bales, 40,000 bales? The economics…make it difficult to believe that these smaller gins will be interested in doing their own classing,” he said.
“Furthermore, I believe that it would be a serious mistake for the industry to impose regulations on the ginning industry through USDA that would require a gin to do its own classing. Surely that would force many of the smaller gins out of business. That is totally unacceptable.”
Sasser can envision “a hybrid system in which gins that want to do their own classing (for the official HVI data) would be allowed to do so.”
However, Sasser and McDill noted that a dual system could end up being more costly for producers.
“USDA depends on volume to keep costs of classing down,” McDill said. “If part of that volume is taken away, I'm not sure we can sustain our cotton classing operation.”
Other issues include insuring accuracy and reliability of the data, as well as security.
To accept gin data on quality as the “official HVI class,” testing would have to be done according to USDA set standards, according to Sasser.
“These standards would include methods for proper collection and handling of samples, conditioning the samples and the test specimen, testing calibration and data security. There would also likely be random selection of samples for retesting by USDA classing offices.”
These are legitimate concerns, according to Joe Yankey, senior project marketing manager, fiber testing, Zellweger Uster, Inc., which manufactures HVI equipment for both gins and USDA's classing program. “But we have to think outside the box a little bit.
“We could do these measurements on-line (the computer and sensors do all the work) where the ginner doesn't touch the sample and there is some certification by USDA that this is an on-line system. That way, we could eliminate a lot of the potential for the changing of data or samples.
“That's the vision. It may take a while to get there, but there are good, technical solutions to handle the hurdles.”
Yankey says that according to studies conducted by the company, Zellweger Uster's system (Intelligin) produces quality measurements comparable to USDA's classing offices.
“The color and trash measurement on the Uster system has a correlation of .94 to the USDA classing data,” Yankey said.
Because samples were not conditioned prior to classing, as they are in USDA classing offices, the Uster system's computer has to correct for moisture and then calculate the strength and length measurements, Yankey said.
“We measured the exact length as USDA 75 percent of the time. Eighty-six percent of the time, we were plus or minus 0.01; and 92 percent of the time, we were within plus or minus 0.02. We were well within the typical agreement range between USDA classing offices.”
Agreements on strength were not as high as with fiber length, but were still within the acceptable range, he said.
What would happen to USDA's Cotton Classing Program if gins started classing all U.S. cotton?
According to McDill, the 12 classing offices and their 120 employees would continue to operate year round. But 2,000 to 2,500 seasonal workers USDA hires each fall to physically class the cotton would not be rehired.
“There would still be a need for USDA involvement,” she said. “You have to have a central function that makes standards uniform throughout the Cotton Belt or you're going back to the same system you had in the early 1900s when it didn't work. There is justification for having USDA involved in some manner.”
USDA took over cotton classing around 1915 at the request of the cotton industry to help settle disputes over quality. It gradually extended the service to all bales.
Yankey said Uster's goal at this point “is not to eliminate USDA classing. Our goal is to find out if we can do a good enough job of measuring real-time at the gin to classify bales for warehousing.
“We believe there is a tremendous amount of savings in the warehousing, storage and shipment of bales if we can group bales real-time at the gin.”
In any case, the issue will not be decided by USDA. “It has to be an industry decision,” McDill said. “We want to make sure there is equity out there in the small gins, but it's still not up to us.”
In 2001, Uster's Intelligin system was used on 1.8 million bales in the United States, according to Yankey. Two other companies also manufacture cotton classing/measuring equipment, Shaffner Technologies, Inc. and Lintronics, Ltd.