Continuous Improvement – United States

A legacy of leadership continues 

The U.S. cotton industry has been committed to continuous improvement in cotton sustainability for decades. The numbers show substantial progress in conserving resources needed to grow cotton. Between 1980 and 2015, in fact, these key resources decreased per unit of output:

  • Land use decreased by 31%
  • Irrigation water use decreased by 82%
  • Energy use decreased by 38%
  • Greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 30%
  • Soil loss decreased by 44%
Cotton Sustainability

In 2017, the U.S. cotton industry invested almost $60 million dollars in agricultural and environmental research to improve the production process. This was accomplished by collaborative research projects that were conducted in all 17 cotton-producing states with over 50 research institutions.

What's driving improvements:

Precision agriculture

Modern technologies known collectively by this term help growers more accurately detect crop needs so they can use resources – fertilizer, pesticide, water – much more efficiently. These tools allow consultants and growers to collect information about how conditions vary within a field (e.g., changes in soil type, elevation) and then manage the crop accordingly. Examples of such technologies include the following:

  • Sensors on the cotton picker that record how much each area of the field produced.
  • Sampling the soil in multiple locations to create maps of how fertilizer requirements vary.
  • Hardware that uses a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver to determine the location of a tractor in the field and automatically change the rate of an input applied.

Cotton Incorporated has worked with a number of universities to track U.S. grower adoption of precision technologies and the reasons for adoption. Surveys indicate a steady increase in the overall adoption rate of precision technologies – from 23% of respondents in 2001 who used at least one precision technology to 86% in 2015. (Read the highlights from the 2015 Cotton Natural Resource Survey here.)

Precision Farming - Cotton Sustainability

Even greater implementation of precision technologies by U.S. farmers is expected in the near future as the technology becomes easier to use. For example, wireless data transfer using cell phone networks is now provided by several major agricultural equipment companies including John Deere, Ag Leader, Trimble and CNH.

Wireless data transfer means growers no longer have to carry memory cards from the computer to the tractor to download new application maps or retrieve yield maps. Many companies have now come together to develop a common data standard to make it easier for farmers to share data with their consultants, input providers and record keeping systems to make the task of transferring data seamless. Learn more about this at

For now, precision technology applications – and the associated environmental benefits – are concentrated in the United States and Australia. However, they are starting to spread to other parts of the world, including Argentina and Brazil (Griffin et al., 2010). There are already examples of how smallholder farmers can benefit from them – such as the use of sensors to improve fertility management decisions (as described here).

Digital data

Precision agriculture and other technologies are giving growers an entirely new way to look at their operations – through data. Better data analytics and community-based sharing means growers can better compare the outcomes of different practices, pass along information to their consultants, and figure out the best cotton variety for a specific field. For example, with something as simple as variety, soil type, field location and yield collected from thousands of farms, finding the perfect variety for a specific field becomes much more science than art. However, data sharing still faces some hurdles, including legal issues surrounding ownership and privacy.

The second digital frontier of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS, more commonly known as drones) also provides a new outlook, from the air. Growers have long known that image-based data from manned aircraft can help them be more efficient. For example, they’ve used image-based data to allow site-specific applications of growth regulators, harvest aids, nitrogen, and water. Many growers, of course, couldn’t access that kind of data in an affordable, timely manner – until the advent of UAS.

Learn more from these experts:

Cross-industry collaboration

United States cotton producers invest significant resources of both time and money in continually improving productivity, environmental quality and human well-being. A prime example of this is the Field to Market® (FtM) organization. FtM brings together a diverse group of grower organizations, agribusinesses, retail companies, conservation groups and universities. These groups are focused on promoting, defining and measuring the sustainability of food, fiber and fuel production. The group provides collaborative leadership that is engaged in industry-wide dialogue, grounded in science, and open to the full range of technology choices. U.S. cotton producers were a founding member of the alliance via early membership of National Cotton Council and Cotton Incorporated.

Field to Market publishes a National Indicators Report on a regular basis to analyze cotton sustainability trends over time at a national scale for U.S. corn, cotton, potato, rice, soybean and wheat production. Data collection and survey instruments for cotton used can be accessed here.

Innovative tools – Fieldprint® Calculator

Field to Market’s Fieldprint Calculator helps U.S. growers identify areas for improvement on their farms. Through this tool, they can enter data on their specific production practices for any field on their farm and see how they rank according to national, state and county averages. The tool also helps downstream companies get a clearer picture of their supply chain.

As the grower reviews his or her results, they can see what aspects of their operation had the biggest impact on a number of outcome-based metrics: land use, soil conservation, soil health (reflected by soil carbon status), irrigation water use efficiency, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and water quality. For several of the assessment areas, scenario analysis can be performed to determine how different management decisions would impact the indicator.

This tool is available to all U.S. producers and is used by some groups as part of a farm level certification system. The U.S. cotton industry conducted pilot studies with growers in Louisiana and Texas to better understand how even more grower value can be captured from the program. Data from both pilots were analyzed to determine the efficiency and sustainability of field management operations and to identify areas of resource concern and opportunities for improvement. Learn about the results:

Building a Better Future – Setting Goals for Cotton Sustainability

U.S. cotton agriculture has come a long way in the past 30 years. But that’s just the beginning. In 2017, the U.S. cotton industry set science based targets to further improve U.S. cotton production for the next five, ten and 30 years. These goals, determined by a U.S. cotton sustainability task force from seven segments of the supply chain, are pushing the frontier of sustainability and leading the worldwide effort in sustainable cotton production.

The target areas and goals were established using science-based evaluations, including key performance indicators (KPIs) for producing each pound of cotton and pathways to achieve them.

  • Increase Soil Carbon by 30%
  • Increase Land Use Efficiency by 13%
  • Decrease Soil Loss by 50%
  • Decrease Water Use by 18%
  • Decrease Energy Use by 15%
  • Decrease Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 39%

Read about the U.S. Industry’s Pathways to Progress

Achieving Our Goals – Winter Cover Crops

One practice critical to meeting all six goals is increasing adoption of winter cover crops. The type of cover crop varies by region and include plants such as clover, wheat, and rye. They are planted soon after cotton is harvested and then terminated one to two weeks before planting the next crop. Cover crops will help growers reach the 10-year goals by: protecting the soil from erosion, increasing the amount of carbon in the soil as they decay, increasing the amount of rainfall that enters the soil and is stored in the root zone, as well as suppressing weeds - a very important benefit where herbicide resistant weeds are a problem. The combined benefits of cover crops make cotton fields more productive and a majority of studies east of Lubbock, Texas to the Carolinas have shown a positive impact on grower profitability. The feasibility of cover crops is less certain in the more arid regions of the western U.S.

Based on a 2015 survey of U.S. cotton producers, 48% indicated that they made some use of cover crops on their farm. To encourage increased cover crop adoption and to ensure growers are getting the maximum benefit, Cotton Incorporated recently facilitated the development of webcasts and videos specific to the three growing regions where cover crops have been successful:

  • Southwestern U.S.: In a Focus on Cotton webcast, Dr. Katie Lewis and Paul DeLaune show how rainfall is an important factor in the long-term success of cover crops in west Texas. In a test site east of Lubbock yield increased with cover crops; however, farther to the west of Lubbock where it is drier, cover crops had a negative impact on yield.
  • Midsouth: In a series of three videos on Cotton Cultivated, University of Tennessee scientists as well as farmers discuss the positive impacts of cover crops in their region. One video addresses cover crops to control herbicide resistant weeds; another the benefits of increased rainfall infiltration, and finally, a general overview of the benefits of cover crops.
  • Southeast: Dr. Alan Frazluebbers, a Research Ecologist with USDA located at NC State, reviews the overall principals of soil health and discusses on-farm cover crop demonstrations conducted with North Carolina farmers.

Cotton Incorporated will continue supporting development of educational materials and maintaining multiple cover crop demonstrations across the U.S. Cotton Belt so growers can see the benefits first hand.

Cotton Crop - Cotton Sustainability
Cotton growing through the residue of a rye cover crop in Alabama.

Accountability Down the Chain

Explore the research and resources we’ve pulled this information from.