Published on 10/21/96

Rains Damage Hidden Cotton Crop, Too

When Tropical Storm Josephine swept across Georgia, she blew some cotton right off the stalk. That's damage easily seen. But she also hurt the second cotton crop.

"We won't know exactly how much damage the rains from Josephine and the week before hurt our cotton until after it's ginned and graded," said Steve M. Brown, an agronomist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"There was some damage to the seeds, too, that we're waiting to see about," he said.

The seeds? Who cares about the seeds?

Buried inside the fluff people picture when they think of cotton, the fuzzy little seeds are a hidden $52 million crop in Georgia.

Cottonseed value adds 7.5 percent to the total income from Georgia cotton. Together, the fiber and seed added $743 million to the state's economy in 1995. This year, with a record crop of 2 million bales expected, the figures could be higher.

Brown said the losses from seed damage could be more than those from fiber damage. Early in the harvest, many farmers harvested more cotton per acre than they expected. And plenty of sun after the storm moved through helps bleach the cotton naturally.

Rain before and from the tropical storm soaked cotton plants. About 90 percent of Georgia bolls were open when the rains began falling in late September.

Rain pulls cotton off the boll, making it harder to harvest completely. And when the boll is soaked and stays wet for longer than three days, the seeds in the cotton may germinate and start to grow.

That does double damage. The sprouting seeds can stain the fiber and drop its value while changing how the seed can be used.

Extension engineer Mike Bader said it's hard to figure a dollar loss due to seed sprouting. "When seeds sprout, they can't be crushed for oil, but there are other uses," he said.

That's good news for cattle farmers.

"For beef animals, sprouted seed has very nearly the same nutrition as first-quality cottonseed," said extension animal scientist Robert Stewart.

Stewart said farmers may find the sprouted seed at lower prices than first-quality seed. "With feed costs as high as they are now and cattle prices as low as they are, this is a welcome break for Georgia cattle farmers."

Whole cottonseed and the meal that remains after crushing the seeds provides high-quality protein and energy for hungry cattle.

Cottonseed has many everyday uses, too. It provides oil for cooking, both commercially and in the home. Papermakers use the fiber left on the hull to make currency and high-quality stationery.

Ginners sell the seed to crush mills or seed marketers. They, in turn, sell the oil, meal or whole seed to their distributors or retailers. When ginners must sell lower-value seed products, they can't pay cotton farmers as much for the seed.

Farmers sell ginners their cotton, with the seed, for a set price. After ginning, the gin operator credits the seed value against the cost to gin the cotton. So when cottonseed value goes down, the farmer feels it, too.

"There's not much of a cotton plant that isn't used after harvest," Brown said. "It all has different dollar values based on its usefulness and quality. Total dollar loss from any weather damage varies with the amount of damage and to what part of the plant."