A lot of Texas Southern Plains cotton farmers made what they thought was the crop of a lifetime last year. Looks now like it may be no better than No. 2.

“We’re estimating 4 million bales for the Lubbock classing office,” says Kenneth Day, area director for that USDA cotton classing facility. “This crop looks large. Last year’s 3.67 million-bale production set a record. I think the 2005 crop will break it.”

“We’re estimating a 5.3 million-bale crop in our production area,” says Steve Verett, Executive Vice President, Plains Cotton Growers Inc.

Both Day and Verett expect this crop to grade much better than in 2004.

By mid-November the Lubbock office had classed 1 million bales. “We got an early jump on this crop but we have a long way to go,” Day says. “If the weather holds, we should be at 2 million bales by mid-December. We’re bringing in from 45,000 to 50,000 bales a day. We’ll probably keep pace with that number through mid-January, then we’ll begin to back off.”

It’s a welcome change from last season when fall rains prevented timely harvest and stretched ginning season into spring. “We were still classing into March and had most done by April but I didn’t class the last bale until May.”

Day says several gins will be running well into March this year but not as many as did last spring. “Compared to last year, we’ll have a compressed ginning season. Gin hours will be down significantly in February and March, if the weather holds.”

Day says this crop also promises to grade significantly better than last year’s. “We may have a few weak areas, but overall grades will be much better.”

He offers comparisons.

Strength for the season last year averaged 28.5. This year, season average through mid- November was 29. Length of the ’04 crop averaged 34.2. To date, average at the Lubbock office is 35.

Micronaire is better than last year, when percent of cotton in the no-discount range was 55 percent. So far this year 65 percent is in the no-discount range. That’s an improvement but not what many observers expected, given the growing conditions. “That’s a bit disappointing, considering the summer we had,” Day says. “We thought mic would be better.”

Verett says average mic so far is only slightly above 3.5.

But color is significantly better, 90 percent 31 and better compared to only 18 percent last year. Leaf is 3 compared to nearly 4 last year. Bark, 53 percent from last year’s crop, is averaging only 8 percent in 2005.

“Bark is trending downward,” Day says. “We got out of the early rainy period and bark content has improved every week. We have not had much harsh weather on open cotton this year. Last year, it was December before the weather cleared.”

He says HVI trash readings that measure percent of surface area that’s not lint is about half what it was last year.

Uniformity, at 80.6, is slightly above last year. “We’ve seen very few light spots, not a lot. We have a big crop and good quality.”

Day says the yield and grade trends have been steady the past few years, except for last year’s poor quality. “Length and strength have improved significantly,” he says. “Good rainfall helps a lot with length. If we can get the weather, we can make a good crop in the Texas Plains.”

Verett says weather played out almost perfectly for this crop. “I don’t know of any reporting station that indicates more rainfall than last year,” he says. “Most report less, but the rain was more timely. Rain in late July and August made the crop. And hot weather in September matured it out.”

He says growers were close to 40 percent harvested by mid-November and would likely hit 50 percent by Thanksgiving with good weather.

He agrees that quality will be significantly better than last year. He’s a bit concerned with early leaf grades. “That’s a trend across the belt. But color is excellent. Mic is a little lower than we would like but strength, length and uniformity are all good. This crop is a big one and with high quality.”

He says that should be good news for the export market. “This is what the international market says it wants,” he says. “We’ll find out. We need to export 16 million bales and this high quality cotton offers a lot of opportunities. The United States will be the place where the market can get what it needs.”

He says the Texas High Plains and Rolling Plains has a crop coming off that is equal to or better in quality than most of the Cottonbelt.

Verett says concern about limited warehouse space for a second big crop in two years may pose only temporary problems.

“We’re dealing with two issues,” he says. “This is an even bigger crop than we made last year and harvesting and ginning season will be more compressed. Last year, harvest strung out from October through February. This year, harvest season, if weather holds, will be October through mid-December.”

That’s the challenge. “On the bright side, there is hardly a warehouse that hasn’t expanded capacity since last season. They’ve either leased additional space or constructed more. We may see some temporary problems and we’ll encourage USDA to make allowances, but if we ship cotton in a timely fashion, adequate space should be available.”

Verett says warehouse carryover this year is no more burdensome than it was this time last year. He doesn’t expect much more cotton to be stored outside than last year and that for only a short time.

“And cotton stored outside is doubly-protected,” he says. “In addition to the usual cover, cotton bales also are protected by non-porous materials that keep moisture out. Bales are placed on dunnage to keep the cotton from being stored directly on the ground.

“Warehouses are responsible for maintaining the integrity of each bale and they do all they can to ship it in a timely manner,” Verett says. “That’s a big advantage for U.S. cotton and the warehousemen in Texas are helping maintain that reputation.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com