When the first cotton pickers with on-board module building capability came on the market, the half million-plus price tag scared most cotton farmers in the Southeast. Now, the price is still high, but the economics look a little different.

Cotton prices at a dollar a pound make a lot of things more feasible. However, regardless of the price of cotton, many Southeastern growers are finding that the true cost of picking cotton can be less using one of the two currently available pickers with on-board module builders.

Speaking at a recent field day, Belhaven, N.C., cotton grower, Danny Clayton, gave a comparison of costs for a new John Deere picker, a new Case IH picker, both with on-board module builders (OBMB), and a used conventional cotton picker.

Clayton began growing cotton in the mid-1990s and has been an innovator, having owned and used one of the first cotton module builders in the Blacklands area of eastern, North Carolina. Clayton farms about 2,000 acres of cotton, along with soybeans and other grain crops.

“Until you run well over 2,000 acres through a new Deere OBMB annually, it will probably not be cheaper. More efficient, less headache, enable you to grow more cotton… yes — cheaper, no,” Clayton says.   

On smaller acreages the OBMB may be cost prohibitive, at least until used ones start hitting the market. Conventional machines are going to get cheap, Clayton adds.

Has used both pickers

The North Carolina grower has used both the new John Deere system and the Case IH picker, both with on-board module builders. Likewise, he has used a number of other conventional cotton pickers.

“Doing an economic analysis of module building pickers versus conventional pickers is complicated by the fact that it is really three different systems. There are things I like and dislike about each picker and when all factors are considered, most people will probably choose based on their favorite color machine,” Clayton said, getting a round of laughter from the hundred or so cotton growers attending his presentation.

The economics from a gin standpoint are probably moot at this point — if you buy a round bale picker and have 2,000 acres of cotton, I suspect the gin will find a way to accommodate you — that’s from the grower’s perspective, Clayton adds.

Clayton used some grower observations and some technical information in his comparison of the three pickers:

  • A conventional system requires a picker, buggy, module builder and three workers all the time. In good cotton, a second module builder may be needed.
  • Module pickers allow cotton to be picked by one person. However, help will be needed to load plastic, move and line up the round modules and to wrap the Case one-half modules. A 185 hp tractor and $23,000 bale handler is required to move round modules and a tractor with a one-half module trailer may be needed for half modules.
  • Conventional — modules are always placed on the end of a row. Module machines will not always dump on the end. Operators will need to unload in a good spot.
  • Weight of the machines. Conventional or Case machines weigh around 51,000 pounds, the John Deere OBMB weighs 68,000 pounds empty. “This is not really a criticism, the machine has a lot going on and its’ relative power is similar to Case or conventional, but it is heavy.”
  • Conventional and Case machines must stop to unload. Deere unloads on the go. This obviously improves efficiency.
  • Conventional and Case machines utilize reusable tarps. The Deere single use plastic wrap costs about 2 cents per pound of lint, about $19 per acre in two bale cotton, $36,000 on 1,900 acres compared to gin provided tarps.
  • Difference in total fuel cost per acre between the three systems is negligible.

Clayton notes that every farmer figures actual cost of picking cotton a little differently. While most of the cost inputs on the three systems are similar, he used the John Deere on-board module builder in his cost comparison of the OBMB pickers because of the extra cost of plastic, which is not a factor in the other two systems.

For the John Deere OBMB, the original cost was $565,000, with an average life of six years, leaving a salvage value of $226,000. Total fixed cost on 1,900 acres of cotton was $97,180. Cost per acre was $51 just to own the machine. Total cost of running the machine over 1,900 acres was $91 per acre.

Bronwood, Ga., grower Ronnie Lee grows about 3,500 acres of cotton in southwest, Georgia. His figures match up well with Clayton’s, with a little bit of a twist. In addition to his own cotton, Lee has a custom picking operation, which further spreads the cost of a new OBMB picker.

He now runs four of the John Deere pickers to pick his own cotton and for his custom picking operation. In 2009, his first picker proved to be a workhorse, picking about 3,500 acres of cotton.

Reduced harvesting cost

“When all is said and done, the reduction in labor and other equipment for conventional pickers and modules means a lower cost in harvesting for us with the new pickers. We feel like we are better off with the new OBMB picker at 2,000 acres, but when you get up around 3,000 acres, you begin to see the real savings with these new pickers,” Lee explains.

“I agree with Mr. Lee. If you can get 3,000 acres of cotton through one machine, then the new Deere is the way to go. Actually, with the price of cotton harvest so high, I am considering going narrow-row to lower harvest cost. I like the narrow-row from a weed control and management standpoint,” Clayton says.

The North Carolina grower says he can pick about seven acres an hour with the OMBM and has run it as much as 20 hours a day. On a typical harvest day, he picks 60-70 acres.

“The cost of a used conventional picker is the only reasonable non-OMBM system to compare, because there simply is little economic sense in buying a new conventional picker at a price near $500,000,” he says.

The average cost of a used 185 hp conventional picker is $200,000, with a six year lifetime and a salvage value of $80,000. Clayton estimates the cost of picking 1,500 acres with this machine at $61 per acre. If you up the cost of a used picker to $280,000, you still only raise the average cost of picking per acre to $72.

The major difference between the Case and the John Deere OBMB pickers is the plastic requirement for the Deere system and the lack of on-the-go unloading for the Case system.

On 2,000 acres of cotton, the plastic cost is going to be around $40,000. Some of the cost for plastic can be reclaimed by selling the used product to recyclers — but not much of the cost. On the same 2,000 acres, some of the extra cost of stopping to unload offsets the need to move bales dumped in some places in the field during on-the-go module building and unloading.

“There is no doubt the OBMB pickers are here to stay. That doesn’t mean every cotton grower needs an OBMB —t here is good used equipment available at reasonable prices. Whether to buy an OBMB system should depend on number of acres to be harvested and available labor,” Clayton concludes.

rroberson@farmpress.com