On April 2, 2002, Chris Breedlove took over as manager of the Olton, Co-op Cotton Gin, a facility that has served Olton, Texas, since the late 1940s and at its current site since 1953.

The gin had just completed processing more than 71,693 bales from the 2001 crop, a feat that earned recognition as the second most productive gin in the state, just behind the Farmers Co-op gin in El Campo.

On April 2, 2003, Breedlove celebrated his one-year anniversary as manager of Texas' most productive gin for the 2002 crop. It took 89,847 bales to secure the honor.

On April 2, 2004, Breedlove hopes to celebrate his two-year anniversary as gin manager with another No. 1 finish. It might take 99,000 bales, a workload that would suit him just fine.

If that happens, he says, it would mean cotton farmers in this area produced another excellent crop and had good conditions to harvest and gin it.

Breedlove takes little credit for the 2002-03 accomplishment.

“We had a good crop in this area. Farmers say it was the best they ever made,” he says. “And that followed an excellent crop in 2001. When I took over last year, folks told me not to expect to equal the output from the 2001 crop.”

Area producer and Olton Co-op Gin President Brian Muller says several deserve thanks for this achievement. First, Muller credits God for providing the area with the “excellent weather” that produced the record crop.

“Thanks also go to producers for supporting their gin,” says Muller, “and to Chris. He's largely responsible for getting this crop ginned in record time. Modifications made to the gin along with his engineering capabilities and rapport with the gin employees made all the difference.”

Breedlove says good farm management is the key to a ginner's success. “That and the good Lord. Weather makes the cotton. The gin takes over from there.”

Breedlove admits to tinkering with the system a bit before the 2002 harvest. But he said a little tweaking is not unusual for this facility.

“It's always been a progressive co-op. They've renovated the facility two or three times since 1953 and in 1999 added new technology that expanded ginning capacity to 60 bales per hour.

“Without the expansion, we would not have been able to gin record numbers in the short amount of time we did and to make the gin more profitable for its producers,” says Muller.

“When I came in, I wanted to be sure the gin would meet its potential,” Breedlove says.

He worked closely with long-time gin employees to evaluate the facility and look for ways to improve efficiency.

“We took out equipment we thought would hamper the flow of cotton and streamlined the operation,” he says. “The early cotton was very good and had defoliated easily, so we had a good base to run for the first two weeks to get the gremlins out of the system.

“If producers make high quality cotton the ginner's job becomes a lot easier.”

Olton Co-op consists of two separate plants. The newest runs five gin stands and can turn out 1,100 to 1,150 bales per day. The other runs from 400 to 500 bales a day.

“With both running, we bale 1,500 or 1,600 bales a day during peak season,” Breedlove says.

He says by knocking out the first and last days of ginning, which could be anomalies because of start-up and shut down procedures, Olton Gin took care of the 2002 crop in 69 days. “And we ran a few half days,” he says.

Breedlove calls the facility “a ginner's dream, a plant that can run as well as this one does. I didn't know they could build a gin that could run 60 bales per hour. Of course, good cotton helps because we can get modules in and out quickly

We sometimes had as many as 11 module trucks running.”

Breedlove says modern gin technology allows ginners to preserve quality better than was possible just a few years ago.

“We have better drying systems and lint cleaners. And we run it as fast as it's capable of. Cotton runs better at high speeds with this technology. Slowing down doesn't improve quality.”

Location helps, too. Most of Olton's customers come from within a seven to eight mile radius of the gin. “That's not typical of most gins in the Southwest,” Breedlove says. “It's like having all our customers in our back yard.”

Most of Olton Co-op's cotton comes from Lamb, Castro, and Hale counties. About 50 percent comes out of Lamb.

Gin employees, Breedlove says, take a lot of responsibility for making the facility run smoothly.

“One in particular, Bob Williams, has been here since the plant moved to the current site in 1953. He's 80 years old and will work 100 hours a week.”

Breedlove says Williams took it as a personal challenge to get 60 bales per hour out of the gin.

“He said if it was designed to run 60 bales per hour, he wanted it to run that many consistently,” Breedlove says. “It may be unusual for that generation to expect so much of technology.”

Both of Williams' sons work as gin superintendents. “Like their father, they take a proprietary interest in the success of the gin.”

In season, Olton Co-op gin employees about 90 workers. “We run two plants, so we have two gin crews plus the module truck drivers, gin yard workers, etc.”

Breedlove admits that success his first year set a pretty high standard. “Farmers will need to make good yields again this year to equal or better the results,” he says. “But a lot of acreage in this area was planted in corn or milo for years so it's good soil.

“And it still has some of the best water on the High Plains.”

Even so, the water table is decreasing, and that may influence farmers to switch more acreage from corn to cotton, Breedlove says.

“Cotton breeders have produced varieties that do well under center pivot systems. If farmers are able to apply the right amount of water at the right time, they can make good yields and high quality.”

Breedlove hopes to pick up a few more acres from established customers in 2003 and wants to expand the client base as well. “I think we'll see less corn because the price is still depressed.”

He'll spend part of the off-season improving the smaller gin. “We have the big gin where we want it, but we have a used press we want to add to the number two gin and bring it up to standard. We want the two plants to mirror each other.”

Olton Co-op Gin is owned by more than 400 stockholders with seven board members overseeing its operation.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com