Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The cotton industry and the Great Plains region are not often viewed as synonymous, but the southern portion of the region constitutes the most concentrated area of cotton production in the world. Cotton production and the industrial base associated with it are concentrated in the southern High Plains of Texas and eastern New Mexico and the Rolling Plains of Texas and Oklahoma. The region consistently produces about 30 to 35 percent of the cotton output of the United States and 5 to 8 percent of the cotton produced in the world. The area of greatest concentration is within 100 miles of Lubbock, Texas, but production extends from the southernmost part of the Plains to as far north as Kansas, although production is extremely sparse north of Plainview, Texas, and Altus, Oklahoma.

Cotton is a multiproduct crop. The primary product is cotton lint, which constitutes about 80 percent of the farm value of cotton production, and the secondary product is cottonseed, which constitutes about 15 percent of the farm value. There are also several by-products. The industry can be characterized as consisting of sectors: production, ginning, warehousing, merchandising, oilseed processing, and textile processing.

The region produces 3.5 to 4.0 million bales of cotton lint each year (each bale weighs 480 pounds), with more than 4.5 million acres planted to cotton and almost 4 million acres harvested each year. The cottonseed production is 1.6 to 1.8 million tons per year. The farm value of cotton production in the region is typically $1.25 to $1.5 billion per year, with a total regional income generated of over $4 billion.

Production occurs under both irrigated and nonirrigated conditions within the region. The crop is typically harvested between mid-October and mid-December using mechanical cotton strippers that remove (strip) all of the material from the cotton stalk, including complete bolls, any remaining leaves, and small stems. Some but not all strippers have field cleaners mounted on them that separate the burrs in the cotton boll from the lint and seed and leave them in the field.

Once harvested, the harvested material (seedcotton) is typically stored in the field in "modules"–eight to twelve bale packed "loaves" of seedcotton of about 20,000 to 25,000 pounds each. These are constructed using module builders. Modules are then picked up with module mover trucks and hauled to a gin for further processing. There are more than 300 of these gin plants within the southern portion of the Great Plains region. They perform the function of separating the lint, seed, and other organic material in the seedcotton. The result is baled lint, which is moved to a warehouse for storage until it is ready to be shipped to a textile plant, and cottonseed, which is sold to a cottonseed oil mill or to a dairy or feedlot for direct consumption by cattle. There are forty-three cotton warehouses within the region and six cottonseed oil–processing plants. The oil mills produce meal for livestock feed, oil for cooking oils, and a range of by-products from linters and seed hulls.

Before cotton leaves the gin, samples are drawn from each bale and sent to a Classing Office operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each bale is evaluated for fiber color, foreign matter content, length, strength, length uniformity, and micronaire (an indicator of fiber fineness and maturity). The quality information on each bale's sample is placed with the bale, and each bale maintains its individual identity throughout the marketing system until it is consumed by a textile plant. This information plays an important role in determining the most efficient use for the cotton and its market value.

Cotton merchants/shippers, who have more than sixty installations in the region (belonging to a smaller number of firms), perform the functions of buying, selling, and moving cotton lint to the textile user. Their concentration tends to correspond to the location of production. As much as 45 percent of the cotton traded occurs through sophisticated computerized electronic trading systems. Most of the cotton from the region is shipped to the southeastern part of the United States or to foreign buyers. However, there is an expanding textile-processing industry within the southern portion of the region. There are some eleven textile-manufacturing firms within the region, most of them using cotton. Only about 5 percent of the cotton grown in the region is processed into textile products within the region, but this is an increase from about 1 percent fifteen years earlier. Manufacturing and transportation cost advantages in relation to the expanding West Coast and Mexico markets will likely support future growth of textile manufacturing within the region.

See also AGRICULTURE: Cotton.

Don E. Ethridge Texas Tech University

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