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, according to Phil Whitworth, vice president of the Producers Cooperative Oil Mill here.
"The development of … round bale (and module) cotton pickers 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 (or module) 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 harvest, 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."
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.
Two U.S. companies—John Deere and Case IH—market large-bale cotton harvesters. John Deere's harvester is larger, yielding a larger round bale. The Case IH module harvester has similar features.
While the new harvesters are expensive, they free up 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.
Gene Overton manages the Bi-State Cotton Producers Cooperative gin at Minco, Okla., in Grady County, 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. Grain sorghum and corn are competitive with cotton when you consider the prices farmers are being paid for these crops.
"While cotton is cheaper to grow and uses less moisture to mature (than corn), cotton producers need to cut back on operating expenses when they grow the crop. If a farmer doesn't need to spend money on harvesting equipment—strippers, cotton module builders and boll buggies— 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 (module pickers) reduces the farmer's expenses and gives him more time to haul the cotton to the gin."
John Schrieber, one of Overton's cooperative members, uses a John Deere 7760 round bale cotton picker 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 will bring the producer 4 cents more a pound for his cotton.
"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 with a good crop 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 its best job."
Schrieber needed at least 1,500 acres of cotton to harvest to make money as a custom harvester. With a round bale harvester he eliminates seven employees.
"My machine will harvest six rows of cotton," he said. "The best fields to harvest are where 12 row cotton planters have been used. 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.”
Custom harvesters will harvest cotton in several different states, moving north from the southern production areas, finishing up in northern Texas, Oklahoma and other cotton growing states.