Billy Sam Borchardt stamped the caked mud-ice-cotton lint mixture from his boots, shrugged off the bitter cold of an early winter morning and watched as loaders slipped and slid over a hard-packed, icy gin yard to move cotton modules away from areas rapidly turning to a dirty slush and onto more firm, cleaner ground.

It's not the Arctic Circle, but Dawn, Texas, does claim to be home to the northernmost cotton gin in the state. And on this frigid morning, it may as well have been Alaska. It was cold. The wind slashed through clothing and flesh like a hot filet knife through newly churned butter.

Borchardt, manager of Top of Texas Gin, said the freezing temperatures might have been a well-disguised blessing. “We can move more modules out of the fields while the ground's frozen,” he said.

The early winter cold snap and snow storm promised to further delay cotton harvest and ginning in a season that had already lost nearly a month to saturated fields.

“Harvest went smoothly except for a three-month period in October when we didn't see the sun for three weeks,” he said.

“That delay put us behind about a month. The crop just sat there. Harvest aids didn't work as they usually do because there was no sun and temperatures were cooler than normal.”

By November, conditions improved and harvest resumed with a vengeance. “We ran 24 hours a day,” he said. “The December snow promised to set the harvest back a bit, but the gin yard held ample cotton to keep the operation running.

Borchardt expected to gin more than 35,000 bales before the season ended. That's up from 27,000 ginned last year, the facility's first year of operation. Final tally in late January counted 40,630 bales.

“This area made a good cotton crop,” Borchardt said. “Overall, yields are above average. Growers are already excited about next year.”

Cotton is relatively new to most growers in the nine-county area that Top of Texas serves.

“Cotton has really taken off from below Interstate 40 all the way to the New Mexico line,” he said. “Most farmers have grown cotton for 5 years or less, although some have grown it for 30 years or more.”

Dale Kleuskens falls closer to that latter category. “I've been growing cotton here since 1984,” he said, “and my father grew cotton in this area back in the 1960s.”

He has expanded acreage, however, to improve on a wheat, triticale, milo and cotton rotation. He grows milo, wheat and triticale for seed.

He divides his acreage in thirds: one to winter crops, one to summer crops and another to fallow.

“Cotton fits well into the rotation,” he said. But it comes with a unique set of challenges in an area that struggles to make enough annual heat units for cotton.

“Our biggest challenge is the thermometer,” Kleuskens said. “It can hurt us early and late in the season.”

He said the key is “don't dally! We have no time for a second chance. We have to start early and do it right.”

Planting date depends on soil temperature. Last year, conditions were right by the last week in April.

“We do all we can to make an early crop,” he said. The high elevation, 3,400 feet, also means cool nights that may delay the crop early in the season.

Kleuskens irrigates only part of his crop and uses what he terms “ultra minimum till” to conserve moisture and improve soil tilth. He says the sometimes harsh conditions demand that he use every advantage he can to make a good, economical crop.

Conserving water has become increasingly important to this traditional corn and grain production area. Declining water tables have convinced farmers they need an alternate, less water-reliant crop.

“They can grow a good cotton crop with less water than they need for corn,” Borchardt said.

The interest in cotton prompted Winstar Gins to build Top of Texas to provide area farmers with a gin close to production. It's a calculated risk in a time when gins are closing in other areas.

Kleuskens ginned his cotton at Hereford before Top of Texas opened. “At one time, Hereford had three gins,” he said. “And recently, we were concerned about keeping one.”

Heightened interest in cotton spawned an interest in developing a gin close to the farmers, however.

“Cotton acreage has increased in this area for the last four or five years,” said Dale Swinburn, a partner in Winstar, the “closely held corporation” that owns Top of Texas and several other gins.

“We lost sugarbeets several years ago and farmers needed something to rotate with grain and wheat. Cotton works well.”

Swinburn said as newer, shorter season, varieties come along, acreage will continue to increase. He said managing for earliness, including using growth regulators and harvest aids, will be crucial to success.

“Growers are enthusiastic about cotton and have responded positively to the gin. We believe this area offers a good opportunity for an efficient gin.”

In addition to the gin itself, the facility includes storage for cottonseed.

“We market cottonseed to dairies and feed yards,” Swinburn said. “We have to have storage to deliver when buyers need feed. We sell in Kansas and Colorado, in addition to local users.”

He said an increase in dairies in the High Plains has been a boon to cottonseed sales.

Borchardt said the gin design helps the plant work through a large crop efficiently, even with delays.

“The basics of gin equipment has not changed much for years,” Borchardt said. “But the way the plant is designed improves flow and cuts costs.”

The Top of Texas facility has an extremely high roof.

“That allowed builders to stack equipment,” Borchardt said. The stacked construction means one 100-horsepower motor pulls cotton to the ceiling and then gravity flow carries it to two machines.

“Most gins require a second 100-horsepower motor to move the cotton,” Borchardt said. “It costs more to build the gin this high and to stack the equipment, but over time, the increased efficiency pays for the expense.

He said production efficiency is essential. “The price for ginning is the same for farmers today as it was in 1982,” he explained. “Gins have to get more efficient to stay in business.”

With cotton prices at their lowest point in decades over the past few years, ginners can't expect to pass higher ginning costs along to producers, Borchardt said.

“Farmers need a better price. Even with a good crop this year, they're still struggling. With a record crop, many will barely come out.

“Most would prefer 60 cent cotton with no government payments than 38 cents from the market and a loan deficiency payment. But cotton has been below the loan for the last five years. It's a struggle.”

Until that struggle eases, gins will work on processing cotton as efficiently as possible.

“If the farmer doesn't make money, the whole industry suffers,” Borchardt said.

rsmith@primdiabusiness.com