Texas leads the U.S. in cotton production and it is our leading cash crop, ranking only behind the beef and nursery industries in total cash receipts. In 2000, growers produced over 4 million bales, representing over $1 billion to the Texas cotton industry. Texas annually produces about 25% of the entire U.S. crop and plants over 6 million acres! That’s over 9,000 square miles of cotton fields.
Almost anywhere you travel in Texas, you’ll be in cotton country. Specifically, eight production regions are recognized around the state. These regions differ with respect to climate, soils, and the cultural practices employed by the growers. We’ve all heard the slogan “Texas is like a whole other country”, and from a cotton production perspective it’s certainly fitting. For example, when it’s planting time in the Rio Grande Valley in February, it might be snowing on the High Plains, and when the first bale is harvested in the Valley in July, growers have just recently finished planting in the Rolling Plains. In most years, the harvest season is about six months long, beginning in July in the Valley and finishing-up in December in the High Plains region. In fact, many custom harvesters make the northern trek from the Valley to the High Plains each season.
Cotton is in the botanical family Malvaceae. Other plant “cousins” to cotton include the landscape plant hibiscus, and one of our favorite vegetables - okra. Also a common Texas wildflower, winecup, and several important weed species such as velvetleaf, spurred anoda, prickly sida and Venice mallow are in the cotton family.
Cotton is produced in most of the southern states, termed the “Cotton Belt.” In 2001 the top ten producing states included Texas, California, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, Arizona, Tennessee and Alabama. The primary type of cotton grown in the U.S. is called upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum), and it is used by most textile mills in the U.S. and in other countries. It comprises about 96% of all cotton grown in the U.S. The other type is called American-Pima cotton (Gossypium barbadense) and it is grown in California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Pima cotton produces very long fibers and is often referred to as “extra long staple.” It is grown in the El Paso Valley in far west Texas with annual production of 30,000 to 50,000 bales.
Cotton lint and cotton seed represent one of agriculture’s most valuable renewable resources. Three primary products are derived from cotton production. We are most familiar with cotton lint, which is used for making cloth (apparel, towels, sheets, etc.). Linters (short fuzz on the seed) provide cellulose for making plastics, high quality paper products, and is processed into batting for padding mattresses, and furniture. Cotton seed is crushed to separate three products – oil, meal and hulls. Cotton seed oil is used for shortening, cooking oil and salad dressing, and the meal and hulls are used in livestock feeds. Cotton seed contains about 16% oil.
Cotton is planted with mechanical planters that cover 8 to 16 rows at a time. The planter opens a small furrow and the seed is precisely placed in the soil, and it takes about 5 to 10 days for the seedlings to emerge. Cotton grows best in warm weather and generally starts to form reproductive structures called “squares” at 30 to 45 days after planting. The square grows and forms a “flower” in about three weeks. The cotton flower is a perfect flower, which means it has the male (pollen producing stamens) and female (stigma, style and ovary) parts in the same flower. The fertilized flower forms a “boll”, which contains the seed and fiber. Cotton fiber is formed from individual cells located on the outer surface of the seed coat. Each seed will contain 14,000 to 18,000 fibers per seed! It generally takes about 45 to 65 days for a boll to reach full development.
Once the cotton bolls have opened, it can be harvested with large harvesting machines called pickers or strippers. The cotton picker uses spindles to pull the cotton lint from the boll, while the cotton stripper removes the entire boll from the plant. In Texas we utilize both methods of harvest. After harvest the cotton is stored in modules. The module builder has a large hydraulic plunger that presses the cotton into a form that resembles a giant “loaf of bread.” Ten to 15 bales are contained in an average module. A module truck transports the “loaf of cotton” to the gin. The ginning process involves cleaning the cotton, and separating the lint from the seed. In the first stage of the ginning process, the cotton is moved through dryers to reduce the moisture content and then it passes through cleaning equipment called “lint cleaners.” The cleaned cotton is then sent to the gin stand where revolving circular saws (kind of like a table saw) pull the lint through closely spaced ribs that prevent the seed from passing through. The lint is removed from the saws by air pressure and is conveyed to a press where it is made into 500 pound bales. The seed is transported to a cotton seed crushing mill where it is cleaned and machines remove the short fibers (linters) remaining on the seed. The seed is then separated into hulls and kernels for use as livestock feed and oil.