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New harvesting technology helps cotton farmers control expenses

By Vic Schoonover

Producers Cooperative Oil Mill

Increasing competition from other crops is a major concern for U.S. cotton producers. New innovations in cotton harvesting will help to make the white fiber the choice farmers make when considering what crop to plant in the spring, according to Phil Whitworth, vice president of the Producers Cooperative Oil Mill.

“The development of the John Deere round bale cotton picker has simplified harvesting cotton in several different ways,” he said. “For instance, an Oklahoma cotton farmer with a large acreage can contract with a custom harvester with a round bale harvester to harvest his crop.

“Accordingly, several mid-size producers could contract with the same harvester for his services. A custom harvester probably would not be interested in harvesting only 200 acres, but he would be for a producer who has 500 to 900 acres of cotton.

“Contracting with several producers with a similar total of cotton acres or even more would pay him well for harvesting their cotton.”

After harvesting the cotton, the farmer, using his tractor and a front end loader and a truck with a flat bed trailer, can load his cotton and haul it to the gin.

“The distance from the producer’s farm to the cotton gin is no longer an issue,” Whitworth said. “A typical flat bed trailer will hold the equivalent of two modules.”

He explained all larger producers have tractors with front end loaders and a tractor trailer. A group of smaller producers can help each other loading and hauling their cotton to the gin, he said.

Gene Overton manages the Bi-State Cotton Producers Cooperative gin at Minco, Okla., in Grady County. Overton’s gin is located on the northern edge of Oklahoma’s typical cotton country. His cooperative members also grow cotton on the edge of Caddo County. Eighty percent of the cotton ginned at his facility is dryland cotton, he said.

“About 20 percent of the cotton we receive is grown under center pivot irrigation systems,” he said.”Grain sorghum and corn are very competitive with cotton when you consider the prices farmers are being paid for these crops.

“While cotton is cheaper go grow and uses less moisture to mature, cotton producrs need to cut back on operating expenses when they grow the crop, If a farmer doesn’t need to spend money on harvesting equipment like cotton module builders and boll buggies, his expenses are lower and he doesn’t have to pay as many hands to drive tractors pulling the buggies and to operate the module builder.

“Using custom harvesters with the John Deere round bale pickers reduces the farmer’s expenses and gives him more time to haul the cotton to the gin.”

John Scrieber, one of Overton’s cooperative members, bought a John Deere 7760 round bale cotton picker in 2010. Since then he has used the machine to harvest his own and other producers’ cotton.

“This machine is not cheap and you have to use it a lot to justify owning one,” he said. “It isn’t hard to find farmers who need someone with good equipment to harvest their cotton. Harvesting good cotton with a picker, which takes the lint cotton out of the boll rather than harvesting the whole cotton boll like a cotton stripper, will bring the producer four more cents a pound for his cotton.”

Schrieber explained manufacturers are developing round bale cotton strippers.

“One round bale will hold four typical ginned cotton bales,” he said.”Under dryland growing conditions and when early frosts prevent the cotton bolls from fully opening exposing the lint for harvest, pickers are not able to do the job they are designed to do. But when there is a good crop to harvest under ordinary weather conditions, the picker is the way to go. Typically, irrigated cotton with more cotton to harvest per acre is where the picker does it’s best job.”

Schrieber explained he needed at least 1,500 acres of cotton to harvest in order for him to make money as a custom harvester. By using a round bale cotton harvester, he eliminates seven employees who ordinarily would be needed to run a cotton module builder, tractors and boll buggies to haul the cotton from the harvesters in the field to the turn row for building the stored modules.

“My machine will harvest six rows of cotton,” he said. “The best fields to harvest are where 12 row cotton planters have been used. That way, I can harvest six rows in one direction, turn around and harvest six rows going the other way. The machine will harvest cotton traveling 4.8 to five miles an hour.

“Round bale cotton harvesters make cotton even more workable for farmers looking for a crop to make them money,” he said.

Mechanized harvesting of cotton in the major cotton growing areas of the US has an interesting history. Cotton was harvested by humans dragging cotton sacks for decades until after WW II, mechanical cotton harvesters were developed that were mounted on row crop tractors in one and two row varieties,

Later, self-propelled harvesters came into use, gradually expanding into larger units designed to harvest more rows at one time. Both pickers and stripper harvesters were designed and became commonly used in cotton fields.

What had not kept up with the harvesting technology was how the harvested cotton was handled and transported to the gin from the field. Trailers, pulled by pickup trucks, were still filled with cotton, pulled to the gin, left there until the cotton was ginned and then pulled back to the field to be refilled with more cotton,

This aspect of cotton harvest had not changed since people were hand harvesting the crop. In 1971, Texas A&M University agricultural engineer Lambert H. Wilkes, working with funding provided by Cotton, Inc., developed the cotton module builder, a large container mounted on wheels with a hydraulic piston on top which moved back and forth on the top of the builder, tamping down the cotton as it was filled up. The module builder rapidly replaced the trailer system and is now the accepted standard for preparing harvested cotton to be handled before it is ginned.

As the module builder fills with cotton, it then leaves a large, module, looking like a large white loaf of bread, in the field. The module builder is moved each time to build a new module. Large, two-wheeled trailers called boll buggies are pulled by tractors are used to transport the cotton from the harvesters in the field to the module builder.

A typical harvesting scene in a cotton field would include at least one module builder, two or more boll buggies pulled by tractors and two or more harvesters harvesting the crop. All of this equipment must be moved to another field after harvesting is complete in another field.

Cotton gins maintain a fleet of trucks equipped with flat beds to haul the modules from the field to a module yard located near the gin. Moduile trucks operate day and night hauling the modules from farmers’ fields to the gin module yard. Each module, usually holding from eight to 14 finished bales, is then identified by owner and given a number which places it on a ginning order. A module truck then picks it up again and hauls it to the gin for processing.

In the mid-2000s, continuing technological developments by agricultural equipment manufacturers created a new chapter in modern cotton harvesting. This led to the marketing of self-propelled cotton harvesters which prepare the harvested cotton in the machine for storage before it is hauled to the gin.

Two companies in the U.S. now market round bale cotton harvesters: John Deere and Case IH. John Deere’s harvester is larger, yielding a larger round bale. The Case IH round bale cotton harvester has many of the same features as the Deere model. Both are operations and can be seen throughout cotton-growing states.

While the new harvesters are expensive, using one frees up a farmer’s need for a module builder, a person to operate the module builder, a tractor and boll buggy and a person to drive the tractor and several more people to help with covering finished modules with tarpaulins and to move the equipment from one field to another.

Using the new round bale harvester gives custom harvesters, people who not only harvest their own cotton but also hire out to other farmers to harvest their cotton, a new, effective tool to make harvesting cotton more efficient and effective.

Many custom harvesters, similar to those who follow the grain harvests in the spring, will harvest cotton in several different states, moving north from the southern states where the harvest begins on to northern Texas, Oklahoma and other cotton growing states.

Date: 9/16/2013

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