Cotton Sustainability in Every Season
March 13, 2023
U.S. cotton growers commit to improvement across the cotton lifecycle.
U.S. cotton farmers and researchers have been finding new ways to conserve water, boost soil health and reduce GHG emissions for decades. Since 1980, the industry has improved its energy efficiency by nearly 31%, dropped water application by 38% and improved land-use efficiency by 30%1.
Their commitment to a more sustainable crop requires action at every stage of cotton’s lifecycle — from before the cotton is ever planted to well after it leaves the farm.
Creating Healthy Soil During Winter
Cotton is naturally a perennial plant, but in order to produce the largest and highest-quality yields possible, U.S. cotton farmers must re-plant and harvest it each year. Nourishing the soil after harvest and before planting is a vital land stewardship task for both the next crop year and the next generation of farmers. Healthy soil also supports sustainability efforts through:
- Higher yields/increased land efficiency
- Better water filtration and water efficiency
- Improved crop resilience to drought and pests, reducing water and pesticide inputs
- Improved soil nutrients, reducing fertilizer inputs.
Cover Crops: One of the most common soil-health practices among cotton farmers is to plant cover crops during the winter. Cover crops help reduce erosion by holding soil in place via their root systems during snow melts and early spring rains and replenish soil nutrients.
Growing More Sustainable Cotton in Spring and Summer
Researchers across the country work every year to develop new cotton varieties that require less water and fertilizer and are more resilient to pests. Farmers employ increasingly sophisticated tools throughout their crop management that monitor when and where their fields need nutrients, water and protection from pests. They also turn to techniques like conservation tillage and innovative irrigation methods to improve water and land efficiency.
Conservation tillage: Two-thirds of U.S. cotton growers report using some form of conservation tillage, i.e. plowing their fields less or not at all2. This practice reduces erosion, increases organic matter and carbon accumulation in the soil, and reduces fuel use.
Precision agriculture: Precision agriculture tools help increase water and fertilizer efficiency, which benefits growers’ incomes and sustainability goals. They also provide verified sustainability data on each bale of cotton, which can contribute to better research and sustainability efforts throughout cotton’s supply chain.
Reducing Cotton’s Carbon Footprint at Harvest and Beyond
One of the best ways U.S. cotton farmers can reduce their climate impact is through increased production efficiency. Soil-health practices that growers use year-round like no-till can help sequester carbon in the soil, but healthier soil also means fewer equipment runs throughout the fields and less fuel use overall. More efficient tractors, irrigation systems and harvesting equipment also can help reduce energy use and GHG emissions.
Permanent Bale Identification (PBI) Tags: Today’s equipment also labels each bale with a PBI tag so that it can be specifically traced from the gin through fiber classing process all the way to the spinning mill. This traceability allows the cotton industry to more closely measure its overall impact and determine what applications best support our sustainability goals.
Cotton Trust Protocol: The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol (CTP) engages cotton growers in accelerating progress toward the industry’s 10-year sustainability goals by helping them measure, benchmark and track their GHG emissions through time using the Fieldprint® Calculator.
Working towards a more sustainable future for cotton is a year-round, industry-wide effort. But it starts with researchers and growers, long before they plant the first seed of each season. With advanced technologies and integration to measure water use and soil nutrients, growers and researchers can continue to improve efficiency for every input and every stage of cotton’s growth.
1 Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. (2021.) Environmental Outcomes from On-Farm Agricultural Production in the United States. National Indicators Report, fourth edition.
2 Daystar, J. S., Barnes, E., Hake, K., Kurtz, R. (2017). Sustainability Trends and Natural Resource Use in U.S. Cotton Production. BioResources 12(1), 362-392