It's still pounds in the basket that get farmers excited about a cotton crop because that's how they get paid, says University of Georgia Extension cotton specialist Steve Brown.

But they can't ignore the signals from buyers that fiber quality will play a bigger role in the size of their paychecks.

“Farmers get paid for yield,” Brown said during a panel discussion during a Stoneville Seed (Emergent Genetics) sponsored breakfast meeting Wednesday at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans.

He says the idea that farmers can grow higher quality fiber and get paid for it has generated “a lot of discussion, and we get a lot of mixed signals. It's coming.”

But Brown fears that a shifted emphasis on quality could hurt Georgia farmers who have been criticized for producing lower quality fiber.

“We've heard a lot of negative comments about our quality, especially short fiber,” he says. “And that's an issue all over the Southeast, except in North Alabama. We have a reputation for producing base or commodity cotton.”

He's concerned that the reputation may prevent Georgia and Southeastern growers from “being paid for (quality cotton) even when we produce better cotton. Other areas in the Belt are growing quality cotton and getting paid for it,” he says.

“Fiber quality in Georgia and across the cotton belt is now pretty good. Staple and strength are good but the industry remains concerned about the Southeast and short fiber.”

He says the USDA classing office only partially reflects what happens to cotton in the mill. “Still, in the future, growers selling cotton in the international market ought to be concerned.”

A 31-3-35 and better has become a standard, he says. That benchmark becomes even more important with from two-thirds to three — fourths of the U.S. cotton crop sold as export.

“We still have some buyers, bottom feeders, who buy some cotton because they can get it cheap,” he says. “Farmers must think and prepare to producer higher quality fiber.”

He says mills “rant and rave about the seed companies not developing varieties with better quality characteristics. But there is no quick fix. It takes eight to ten years to develop a variety. And seed companies have made improvements.”

Brown says growers can take some of the responsibility for producing better cotton.

“Variety selection is the first step,” he says.

But he recommends going beyond research plot evaluations to judge cotton fiber quality. “Plots are hand harvested and hand ginned, so that cotton does not go through the same stresses that commercial cotton does. Some of the quality characteristics will be over-estimated.”

H recommends growers track modules, identified by variety, through the gin and have the ginner provide quality ratings for those modules.

“That's the best real world data you can get,” he says, “straight from the gin.”

“See where those varieties came from and compare them to other fields or to a neighbor's cotton.

“We're not where we want to be with varieties yet, but we're getting there.”

Brown says farmers also can do a better job of timely harvest to preserve quality. “We need to have a greater sense of urgency in harvest timing,” he says. “When we leave cotton in the weather, nothing good happens.”

Insect control also helps maintain cotton quality. “Stink bugs, mostly late season infestations, hurt quality. Data show effective control preserves fiber quality and not just color but length and strength as well.”

Brown says the quality issue is coming and that farmers will have to change. “Unfortunately, farmers often don't change until they get hurt economically.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com