What Is a Cotton Crop?

Emily Pate

A cotton crop is the result of the cultivation of plants of the Gossypium genus for economic and food purposes. The plant is a shrub defined by its soft, fibrous boll surrounding its seeds. This warm-weather crop is native to tropical and subtropical regions and generally can't tolerate extreme conditions. Cultivation begins with planting in a fertile soil and includes considerable management for a successful yield. The crop may be picked by hand or machine and has a number of uses.

Cotton bolls on a branch.
Cotton bolls on a branch.

Cotton is a shrub plant of the Gossypium genus. Its seeds are surrounded by a fluffy ball of soft fiber that help in their dispersion. The soft fibers work well as textiles once spun into yarn or thread. Cotton is most often cultivated in large commercial crops.

A field of cotton.
A field of cotton.

Typically, a cotton crop does best in temperatures ranging between 52° and 77° Fahrenheit (about 11° to 25° Celsius), most typically in tropical and subtropical climates. Freezing and extremely hot temperatures can effect the yield and quality of a cotton crop, if not completely destroy it. Excess moisture and dry conditions lasting longer than five to seven months can produce the same effects.

Starting a cotton crop includes planting seeds in moist soil with plenty of fertilizer or compost, since the plant uses large amounts of nutrients. The soil should also have a muddy or slightly sandy texture so that the long roots can penetrate deeply. Seedlings take between one and four weeks to appear. The cotton crop may need irrigation if it isn't located in an area receiving between 7,000 to 9,000 m3 of moisture per hectare naturally.

Crop management involves concerted effort and labor beginning with soil preparation through the plant's life cycle and ending post-harvest. Cultivators must consider possible pests, diseases, and issues according to local climate and environment, and pay close attention through the plant's development, estimating yield and fruit retention using a variety of methods. Factors like weed and insect control, plant population, and irrigation must also be carefully considered and executed for high quality and yield.

Cotton may be harvested by hand or mechanically. Machines either remove the cotton from the boll by itself, or strip the entire boll from the plant. Stripping machines are common in windy climates where "picker" plant varieties don't fare well.

The harvested plant's fiber and seeds are used in several industries. The majority of fiber is used for clothing production, followed by home furnishings and industrial applications. Cotton seed is used to feed livestock and poultry, and the plant's oil is also used in food production.

A cotton T-shirt.
A cotton T-shirt.

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