Folks traveling the rural roads southeast of the Violet Community in Nueces County on Friday afternoon, August 24, were certain to do a double-take when they rounded the curve approaching the Larry Hellmann farm, near the junction of County Roads 30 and 57.

At first glance, the field's edge appeared to have had the random placement of about twenty large hay-size rolls with white stuffing. A covering of pale green plastic wrap encompassed each roll.

Yes, these were rolls containing freshly picked seed-cotton from Hellmann's fields — not hay rolls turned white by a prankster's spray paint can. Much heavier than hay rolls, at around 5,000 pounds each, they can hold 3.5 to 4 bales of cotton following ginning.

Working in the same cotton field were two shiny green John Deere picking machines that had a slightly different look. From the front view they appeared to be identical to the six row picking machines working just down the road. But from the side and rear views there were some noticeable differences. Those differences began directly behind the operator's cab, where the pickers take on a humpback shape, as opposed to the flat-topped, square- backed shape of the conventional big-basket pickers.

Two years ago, I had an opportunity to watch the prototype of these machines working in a cotton field near Chapman Ranch. Engineers with the John Deere Company were testing aspects of their revolutionary new design in cotton harvesting equipment.

That same year, engineers with Deere's primary competitor, Case International, were testing their new picking machine that takes the seed-cotton it has harvested and compacts a mini-module onboard as it moves through the field.

Both companies have been working on a new generation of cotton harvesting equipment that will further reduce labor and secondary handling equipment. These new systems will eliminate the need for boll buggies and module builders that have been a part of mechanical cotton harvesting operations for the past 30 years.

Both of the new systems are still under development, and have a few challenges to be worked out, particularly relating to transportation efficiency, storage space on the gin yards, and preparation for ginning.

A big issue for farmers is the cost of the round bale weather proof wrapping, which currently runs in the neighborhood of $60.00 per roll.

Who is expected to pay the cost of covering rolls? Presently, gins provide module covers.

Picking cotton has never been easy. No matter how farmers approach the task, it involves a lot of energy and labor to remove the light, fluffy bolls from their stalks and move them to a gin that separates the marketable lint fibers from the seed and trash particles.

Obviously, when row picking machines gradually began to replace hand harvest labor some 50 years ago, the process of harvesting cotton got less labor intensive. Mechanical harvesting became more efficient and faster paced when module builders and boll buggy's were adopted to help reduce downtime. That, in turn, created the demand for six row harvesting machines to move through fields at an even quicker pace.

With the development of these new onboard packaging devices on cotton picking machines, a new era in cotton harvesting is rapidly approaching. Only time will tell how quickly these innovations will be adopted.

But you can be assured that if they increase the acreage that can be harvested during a day, with less labor and auxiliary equipment costs, these new systems are certainly worth a hard look. The real test is whether they can successfully help the farmer improve his net returns from cotton production.

Now for the end of a personal era: On August 31, I will be retiring following a rewarding 37-year career as a county agent working with farmers, ranchers, and the tremendous young people involved with the 4-H and FFA programs.

I am not sure what the future has in store. Hopefully, we can generate a few more articles on the agricultural happenings around South Texas for our readers. Until then, so long and may God bless.