||It’s older than recorded history, it fueled the Industrial Revolution, and it’s the world’s most popular natural fiber.
Cotton is a crop produced around the globe, driving the world’s textile industry, and is quite unusual in that it is simultaneously both a food and fiber crop. (Cottonseed, which must be removed from the fibers during “ginning,” is processed into oil by crushing, and is also used as a supplement for dairy feed, especially in California.)
Cotton is a versatile fiber: it can be used for everything from heavy industrial canvas to some of the world’s finest fabrics, and also finds uses in housewares, bed linens, medical supplies, and even photographic film and videotape. (The “plastic” part of most film and tape is cellulose acetate, which is cotton, dissolved into acetic acid.)
All cottons are not created equal: there are different types of cottons, referred to in the trade as “varieties,” and then there are characteristics such as fiber length (staple), fiber strength, color grade and others that can be measured. Those characteristics determine the use for the cotton, and subsequently its value.
Cotton varieties are developed to suit specific growing regions, respective of environmental and cultural conditions, with the objective of maximizing yield potential (amount of cotton produced per acre) and optimizing fiber characteristics. The same applies regardless to the individual cotton species, which in the U.S. are limited to Pima (Gossypium barbadense) and Upland (Gossypium hirsutum). (The only other native cotton species is Asiatic, Gossypium arboreum, and is grown almost exclusively in Southeast Asia.)
The most commonly produced variety in the U.S. is Gossypium hirsutum, which is popularly known as Upland cotton. G. hirsutum in the U.S. is classified into four major types: Delta, Plains, Eastern and Acala, referring to the major producing regions of the country.
California produces a special Upland variety known as San Joaquin Valley Acala, which is among the highest quality Upland cottons in the world. The Golden State also produces an Upland variety called California Upland, which is similar in style and quality to other U.S. cottons. Arizona growers produce Upland varieties referred to as C/A, for California/Arizona.
SJV Acala is not grown elsewhere in the country, and its yield is higher than those generated from Upland cotton produced in Southeastern, Mississippi Delta and Plains states because of the longer growing season, greater number of hot days and close control of irrigation. However, the longer growing season and the need to irrigate, however, makes Acala cotton more expensive to produce.
Both states also produce an extra long staple variety, Pima cotton, with California producing nearly all the U.S.’s annual production. Gossypium barbadense compares and competes with Egyptian cotton.
Regardless of the variety, cotton plants can grow in different soils, but grow best on fertile, well-drained soil with good water holding capacity.
In the Northern Hemisphere, cotton is typically planted as early as February, though most cotton in the U.S. won’t be planted before March or April. Cotton is planted in long, straight rows, known as furrows. In the U.S., the distance between furrows is usually 30 to 40 inches apart, depending upon the equipment used to plant seeds.
Cotton can be “rain grown,” as it is in much of the world, or irrigated, or both. Plants do best with irrigation, for the most part. Plants need warm days and cool nights, and regular watering. Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate with the plant’s needs.
In the Far West, cotton is furrow irrigated, meaning water is flooded down the rows to soak in, although sometimes border-strip or sprinkler methods are used. Arizona has helped pioneer drip-irrigation systems, which though expensive to install, are the most efficient application methods available.
From planting to harvest, the cotton plant requires about 180 - 200 days from seed to full maturity. Watering usually ceases in August, and the plant is allowed to dry out (dessicate), and then begins to defoliate (leaves fall off the plant). Sometimes chemical assistance is needed to fully defoliate the crop, which in the U.S. is entirely mechanically harvested by large machines known as “pickers.”
Cotton is grown in four geographic areas of the U.S., referred to as the Southeast (Georgia, Florida, Virginia, Alabama, the Carolinas); the MidSouth (Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee); the Southwest (Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas); and the Far West (California and Arizona, and New Mexico).
Among those 17 states, Texas has the largest producing area and production (typically 5.0 million bales). Kansas has the smallest (about 50,000 acres and the same number of bales). Annual U.S. production is between 15 and 20 million bales.
A full size U.S. bale of cotton lint weighs approximately 500 pounds and is about five feet tall. According to statistics from the National Cotton Council, one typical bale can produce 8000 handkerchiefs, 3400 pairs of socks, 750 shirts, 3000 diapers, 325 pairs of jeans, or 200 full size bed sheets.
Cottonseed, when crushed, produces byproducts which are common in everyday use. “Linters,” the fuzz left on Upland cottonseed after ginning, will wind up in products as diverse as dynamite, gunpowder, mops, cotton balls, automotive upholstery, fine writing paper and U.S. currency.
Cellulose, the principal component of the cotton fiber, when extracted from the linters is used to make food casing, paint, toothpaste, and plastics for windshields, toolhandles and film.
And that’s not all: cottonseed hulls are mainly used for animal feed, and cottonseed oil is used as cooking oil, an ingredient in salad dressing, cosmetics, soap, and as a carrier for agricultural sprays.
Cottonseed meal and cake, the “dry” part of the seed after the oil is extracted, is used for fertilizers and feed for cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, fish and shrimp.
The “seedcotton” that will produce one 500-pound bale of lint, will also leave about 725 pounds of seed. The oil from that seed will cook nearly 6,000 snack-sized bags of potato chips.
Most of the West’s seed, however, won’t be crushed, due to the fairly low oil content of the seed. Of the approximately 850,000 tons of cottonseed produced annually in California, nearly allor 95 percent is fed to dairy cattle. The remainder will be used to plant the next season’s crop.