We can blame Hurricane Lili, Tropical Storm Isidore and drought in the West and along the Atlantic Coast for a dropoff in the overall quality of the 2002 U.S. cotton crop. But, according to Mike Watson, senior director, Fiber Quality Research for Cotton Incorporated, overall cotton quality has been declining for about 10 years now.

Watson, who reported on the quality of the 2002 crop during the 2003 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Nashville, said about 77 percent of the 15 million bales classed so far this season were in the white grade, compared to 84.3 percent last year. Twenty percent were light spotted, compared to 13 percent last year.

Average micronaire of the crop was 4.6, compared to 4.56 last year.

Average length of the 2003 crop was 34.46, compared to 34.4 last year.

Average strength across the belt was 28.6, slightly higher than last year's 28.31.

Quality declines since 1993 are more dramatic, however. For example, from 1993 to 1997, staple length across the United States rarely dropped below 35. Beginning in 1997 and continuing to today, average U.S. staple length has not exceeded 34.5.

A breakdown by regions indicates problems in the Mid-South and Southeast.

For example, in 1993, 86 percent of the Mid-South crop had a staple length of 35 and above. In 2002, only 55 percent fell into that category. In the Southeast, in 1993, 74 percent of the cotton crop had a staple length of 34 or above. In 2002, only 26 percent had a staple length of 34 or higher.

On the other hand, in 1993, around 85 percent of the San Joaquin cotton crop had a staple length of 36 or above. Today, 89 percent has a staple length of 36 or higher.

Over the last 10 years, the strength of the U.S. cotton crop has remained in a range between 28 and 29, but dipped below 28 in 2000.Since then it's climbed steadily to a U.S. average of 28.5 in 2002.

Again, changes in strength have been more dramatic within regions, according to Watson. In 1993, roughly 12 percent of the San Joaquin Valley cotton crop had a strength rating of 33 or higher. By 2003, the percentage of cotton with strength of 33 had grown to 75 percent.

In 1993, 23 percent of the south Texas cotton crop had a strength rating of 28 or higher. That grew to a significant 83 percent in 2002.

In 1993, 69 percent of the Southeast cotton crop had a strength rating of 28 or higher, compared to 45 percent in 2002.

The strength of the Mid-South cotton crop, at 28, is slightly higher than in 1993.

Over the last 10 years, average micronaire has moved closer to the discount range, and has grown significantly higher since 2000. Almost 18 percent of the U.S. crop fell into the discount range for high mike in 2002, compared to 8 percent in 1993.

Since 1993, San Joaquin Valley mike has moved slightly higher, but less than 2 percent was in the discount range for high mike in 2002. West Texas mike also moved higher in 2002, with 11 percent in the discount range for high mike, compared to less than four percent in 1993.

Nineteen percent of the south Texas cotton crop had high mike in 2002, compared to 11 percent in 1993. But a little under 70 percent of the south Texas crop had mike between 4.2 and 4.9, compared to 48 percent in 1993.

Thirty-three percent of the Mid-South cotton crop was discounted for high mike in 2002, compared to 16 percent in 1993. Thirty-eight percent of the Southeast crop was discounted for high mike in 2002, compared to 22 percent in 1993.

High mike “is particularly damaging to prices because it increases milling costs exponentially,” Watson said. So far this year, grower losses from mike discounts are $75 million, according to Watson. In 2001, mike discount losses cost growers an estimated $99 million.

According to Watson, in 2001, 18 percent of the U.S. crop was at “base” or better, with 82 percent below base. In 2002, 13 percent of the U.S. crop was at “base” or better with 87 percent below base.

Quality is a very important factor for U.S. export markets, according to Watson. With more domestic cotton being shipped overseas, U.S. growers must be more cognizant of foreign quality expectations. That includes staple length of 35, middling color, leaf grade, 3, strength of 26, with low neps.

“If cotton does not meet those guidelines, export customers expect significant discounts.”

erobinson@primediabusiness.com.