Cotton-Pickin' Advantage

November 30, 2011 04:21 AM
Cotton-Pickin' Advantage

High-tech equipment boosts efficiency when labor is tight

One of the early adopters of on-board, module-building pickers, Andrew Burleson is now self-sufficient when it comes to harvesting cotton. He’s also planting more of it.

In 2008, Burleson bought a Case IH on-board, module-building picker, which makes modules about half the size of conventional ones. In 2010, he bought a John Deere on-board, module-building picker, which creates round, 6,000-lb. modules, and now runs three of them.

"These pickers have allowed us to plant and harvest more cotton on our own, cut labor costs and limit risk and liability," says Burleson, who grows 2,500 acres of cotton and 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in Richfield, N.C.

Some producers in the mid-South sold off their conventional equipment when cotton prices languished in the mid-2000s to grow higher-priced corn and soybeans. The new pickers could convince them to return to cotton, particularly now that cotton prices have staged a strong recovery.

"The ability to buy one of these machines makes it easier for people to say, ‘I’m going to come back to cotton,’" says Ed Barnes, director of agricultural and environmental research for Cotton Incorporated.

The Way to Go. Kelley Enterprises, near Covington, Tenn., runs eight of the John Deere on-board, module-building pickers. The operation farms 18,000 acres of cotton, 1,000 acres of corn and 1,000 acres of soybeans. It took Brad Williams, a partner in Kelley Enterprises, only one year to convert the entire operation to the new system.

"We ran four John Deere 7760s, the round module-building pickers, in 2010 and four John Deere 9996s, the conventional pickers," Williams says. "By running both the conventional and the module-building picker, we were assured the module-building pickers were the way to go." This year, the operation used eight John Deere 7760s.

Williams says the new pickers allow him to harvest cotton more efficiently, which saves on labor costs and improves quality because the modules aren’t sitting in the field long enough to sustain damage from bad weather.

"When we were running conventional pickers, we had 35 employees. Now we are down to 15 with the eight pickers," Williams says. "Before, we had 25 to 26 pieces of equipment moving through the fields; now we have 12." He estimates the labor savings at $55,000.

Cotton Pickin Advantage  1On smaller fields, producers can drop the wrapped modules at the end of the field, eliminating the need for a handler. If the cotton rows are longer than 25 acres, Williams says, producers need one handler per picker.

List prices for the new on-board, module-building pickers range from $615,000 for the Case IH picker to $705,000 for the John Deere, compared with about $400,000 for a conventional system. For the new pickers to pencil out, a grower must have at least 1,800 to 2,000 acres of cotton, Barnes says.

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