Increase Soil Carbon
Increase Land Use Efficiency
Decrease Soil Loss Per Acre
Decrease Energy Use
Decrease Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Decrease Water Use
U.S. cotton grower, Nathan Reed, Shares his continuous improvement plan to grow
cotton more responsibly.
SETTING SCIENCE-BASED TARGETS
Commitment and innovation define U.S. cotton production. Over the last 35 years, the
commitment of U.S. cotton producers, researchers, and industry organizations led to
dramatic reductions in land use, soil loss, water use, energy use and greenhouse gas
emissions. Innovation in technologies, management systems, and conservation created the
opportunities for advancements in yield while taking stewardship of natural resources for
cotton agriculture to the highest levels in the world.
For the next decade and beyond, U.S. cotton producers and industry organizations are
setting new environmental targets to keep pushing the frontier of sustainability and leading
the worldwide effort in responsible 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
10 YEAR GOALS FOR U.S. COTTON
The primary actions to improve soil health are
the use of cover crops and reduced tillage.
Currently, approximately half of U.S. growers
currently use winter cover crops, and no-till
and strip till adoption has increased from 36%
to 45% from 2008 to 2015, respectively.
There is a significant growing interest in the
use of winter cover crops by U.S. producers
and there has been an increasing trend
towards no-tillage and strip tillage.
In addition to reducing the amount of GHG
released to the atmosphere, improving soil
heath can also contribute to: increased crop
yields; reduced water use; increased nutrient
uptake; reduced fertilizer use; reduced
nutrient runoff; and reduced soil loss.
INCREASE SOIL CARBON BY 30%
Increasing soil carbon, often referred to as
regenerative agriculture, is seen by many
organizations as a key strategy to reducing
atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) that
leads to climate change. The soil carbon
measurement is important not only for
understanding carbon flows to and from
cotton fields, but it is also an accepted
indicator of soil health.
The USDA's Natural Resource Conservation
Service (NRCS) Soil Conditioning Index
(SCI) provides guidance on practices that
increase organic matter, or carbon, in the
soil and is used as the KPI for this
sustainability goal. An increase in the SCI
by 30% means an increase in the number
of fields that are increasing soil organic
FIGURE 1 No-till practices increase microbes and organic matter in the soil. The degraded
cotton under-wear (left of image) demonstrates the microbes present in healthy soils as well
as the ability of cotton to biodegrade compared to synthetics (right of image) after a five
week time period.
• Increasing cotton fiber yields through better genetic varieties and appropriate grower management;
• Reducing the amount of water per pound of cotton, especially with highly uniform water delivery
• Improving soil health through crop rotation, no-till practices, and the planting of cover crops; and
• Implementing improved irrigation scheduling tools (e.g., computer programs and sensors).
Research aimed at increasing cotton yields and reducing cotton land use are seen as key
priorities for reaching the sustainability goals while also increasing the profitability of growers.
Of the many areas of research and activities to increase yields, the following are some of the
• The use of geospatial technologies that analyze in-field water and nutrient measurements to expand precision
• The incorporation of digital technology applications across cooperating growers to provide greater predictive
power to grower decisions;
• Preserving the low insect-, weed-, and disease-related yield loss that U.S. growers currently experience;
• Expanding soil health knowledge and implementing practices that foster a diverse and healthy rhizosphere;
• Further adoption of in-field, plant-based sensors to optimize irrigation in variable rate systems;
• Furthering the use of CRISPR genome editing, which has been demonstrated in cotton.¹ The CRISPR
technology is superior to traditional biotechnology approaches for its reduced regulatory burden, genome
location precision, trait flexibility and potential to broaden the providers of genetic innovations for agriculture;
• Improvements in plant breeding techniques combined with more rapid adoption of improved varieties.
FIGURE 2 Geospatial technologies and digital technology applications provide growers with
information to improve land use efficiency.
INCREASE LAND USE EFFICIENCY BY 13%
The effective use of agricultural land is critical to creating a more sustainable future.
Population growth and the related increased demand for food and fiber necessitates a need
to maximize land use efficiency, or yield.
The U.S. cotton industry continues to increase its land use efficiency by:
1 Plant Molecular Biology 2017 DOI 10.1007/s11103-017-0599-3 ; Scientific Reports 2017 DOI: 10.1038/srep43902
2 Science 2017 DOI: 10.1126/science.aal4680
DECREASE GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS
Cotton growth naturally removes CO2 from
the environment through photosynthesis,
however, the use of fertilizers and other on
farm activities release CO2
greenhouse gas (GHG) to the environment.
One of the strongest contributors to cotton’s
agricultural GHG footprint is the use of synthetic
nitrogen (N) and its energy intensive
manufacturing process. In addition, N is a strong
GHG contributor because a small percent of
applied N fertilizer is lost to the atmosphere as
nitrous oxide, a potent GHG.
The cotton industry is working with scientists to
decrease the amount of nitrogen required to
produce each pound of cotton through efforts to
increase nitrogen use effeciency
(NUE). Refined management systems are calling
for precise amounts of nitrogen to eliminate waste
and over application. With increased use of site-
specific management and new technologies such
as on-the-go sensors, there will be increases in
NUE and corresponding decreases in GHG
FIGURE 3 Sensors enable growers to more accurately
measure plant needs and to be more efficient with the
inputs applied to the crop.
DECREASE SOIL LOSS BY 50%
Soil conservation efforts are high priority for cotton farmers as soil losses can create
environmental degradation, reduce farm productivity and decrease the quality and quantity of
usable soil. While cotton field soils are continually produced from parent material, the industry
goal is to produce more new soil than is lost due to water or wind erosion.
From 1980 to 2005, large numbers of cotton growers in the Mid-South and Southeast adopted
conservation tillage to reduce soil erosion. This land use pattern was aided by the launch of
cotton varieties tolerant to broad-spectrum foliar herbicides in 1997, and by their rapid
adoption across the U.S. Cotton Belt over the next five years.3 More recently, grower interest in
cover crops for weed suppression and for soil health has extended the protection of soil to
intense rainfall. Cover crop adoption for weed control and soil health will continue to be an
important component of continuous improvement efforts of the U.S. cotton industry.
Weed resistance will continue to expand as more weed species gain resistance to
existing herbicide modes of action. Since no new modes of action
in the next ten years, growers will be under even greater pressure to adopt cover
crops to suppress weeds. Research will clarify which cover crop species and
varieties provide allelopathic weed suppression, enhancing cover crop efficacy.
Soil health is a major initiative of the USDA-NRCS.
The initiative is designed to
expand the benefits of rhizosphere biology (nutrient and water uptake through roots) by
increasing the soil organic matter and diversity of shoots, roots and microbes grown in the
field. Ancillary benefits include seedling wind protection and pathogen suppression.
Grower adoption of soil health measures will continue to be promoted in education
The majority of the U.S. cotton crop is grown without irrigation or with only supplemental
irrigation. Thus, rainwater capture, infiltration and protection from soil surface
evaporation is beneficial for cotton yield. With increasing intensity of rainfall attributed to
, research and educational efforts will increase use of no-till, cover crops
and surface residue which enhance rainwater utilization. These practices also prevent
FIGURE 4 Cover crops suppress weeds,
improve soil health and prevent soil loss.
Better water delivery systems help growers to increase water use efficiency by
delivering water closer to the plant, preventing evaporation. The irrigation system uses
scheduling tools to only apply water when and where it is needed.
DECREASE WATER USE BY 18%
an inherently drought tolerant crop, however, in some regions of the U.S., cotton
fields are irrigated to increase productivity. Increasing water-use efficiency (WUE) would
allow growers to produce more cotton using the same amount of water; doing more with
less. This increase would help the U.S. cotton industry meet the demand for more
sustainable fibers while using less resources per pound of cotton.
Over the past several decades, U.S. cotton growers have increased yields without increasing
water use. This historical progress has been achieved through the use of tools and practices
The trend of increased yields without increased water use will continue, as the adoption of
irrigation scheduling technologies is promoted. There is a strong business case for improving
WUE. Data from Daystar et al. (2017)
indicate that producers using sensor-based irrigation
achieved 100 pounds higher yield/acre without increased water use compared to producers
not using sensors.
• The implementation of better water delivery systems (e.g. Pipe Planner®, laser
leveling, low nozzle centerpivots and drip irrigation) to increase irrigation application
• The use of improved irrigation scheduling tools (e.g., computer programs, and crop
and soil sensors).
Robotic implements are already available for
factory and residential cleaning. Considering the
large market for robotic implements in agriculture,
these will be entering the market soon and will
lower cotton harvesting energy use and cost.
Gene Editing of Fiber to Seed Attachment Force
Even without a major improvement in machinery, it
is anticipated that gene editing will facilitate
development of cotton varieties with lower gin
energy costs due to the ability to manipulate the
fiber to seed attachment force (ginning represents
approximately 25% of the U.S. cotton energy
footprint for non-irrigated conditions).
DECREASE ENERGY USE BY 15%
The primary energy expenditures in cotton
production include manufacturing nitrogen
fertilizer, harvesting, ginning and tillage. U.S.
cotton growers began reducing their energy
expenditures in the 1980's by employing reduced
tillage and reducing nitrogen applications per
pound of fiber produced. Since the energy
requirements for harvesting and ginning are
relatively constant, the pathway to further
decreases will be addressed by the increase in the
number of growers employing reduced tillage and
reduced nitrogen applications, as well as
Several promising technologies will be available in
the 10 to 30 year time frame that will lower the
harvesting and ginning energy consumption,
Robotic technologies are one tool that U.S.
cotton growers can employ to further decrease their
energy use in the near future.
3 USDA-AMS Cotton Varieties Planted 1997 through 2002
6 Nature Climate Change DOI:10.1038/nclimate2258
7 Daystar, J.S., E. Barnes, K. Hake, and R. Kurtz. 2017. Sustainability trends and natural resource use
in U.S.cotton production.
BioResources DOI: 10.15376/biores.12.1.362-392
Define Sustainability for the Enterprise
Benchmark KPI Metrics
Set Goals for Each KPI
Implement the Strategy
Measure, Assess and Report
THE GOAL SETTING PROCESS
The goal setting process followed the Framework for Sustainable Agriculture standard S629
recently adopted by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE).
Leaders from U.S. cotton industry organizations including the National Cotton Council, Cotton
Board, Cotton Council International, and Cotton Incorporated engaged ten technical experts
in cotton biology and production to discuss how future technologies would impact trends in
14 key performance indicators, which are used to assess the sustainability of cotton
production systems. In addition to leading experts in cotton production related fields, a
recent survey of over 50 cotton producers on their perceptions of future opportunities and
challenges influenced the discussion.
As a result, recommendations for six science-based U.S. cotton industry goals were presented
to the newly formed U.S. cotton sustainability task force. A seventh goal, enrolling 2.5 million
acres in the Fieldprint® Calculator, was also set. The Fieldprint Calculator is the tool that will
measure progress and each environmental KPI. The recommendations included goals for the
next five, ten and 30 years. The five and ten year goals are more tactical in nature, while the
30 year goals reflect aspirational goals for the industry
. This summary document highlights
the ten year goals as approved by the U.S. cotton sustainability task force.
FRAMEWORK FOR SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE BY AMERICAN SOCIETY OF
AGRICULTURAL AND BIOLOGICAL ENGINEERS, STANDARD S629
The U.S. cotton industry goal setting and sustainability task force were developed and approved by the National Cotton
Council of America with support from seven U.S. cotton industry segments: producers, ginners, warehousers, merchants,
cottonseed crushers, cooperatives and manufacturers. Cotton Incorporated is helping to meet these goals through
research, education, outreach and extension.
AMERICA'S COTTON PRODUCERS AND IMPORTERS Service Marks/Trademarks of Cotton Incorporated.
2018 Cotton Incorporated.