The new on-the-go module-making cotton pickers from Case IH and John Deere are called the biggest revolution in cotton harvest and handling since the invention of the module builder.
They are also ranked up there with the cotton gin and the mechanical picker as major breakthroughs in the cotton business.
However, writing a check to buy into this fourth, historical frontier is going to be a lot more gut-wrenching than buying a module builder.
These new Deere pickers run about $600,000 a copy. The Case IH model is about $50,000 less. A new module builder is about $20,000. Good used ones are going for about half that.
Nevertheless, the opportunity to significantly reduce labor and overall equipment costs to gather and store cotton in conventional modules captured the fascination of growers, pest control advisors and others at the recent Central Coast Cotton Conference in Monterey, Calif.
Using one of the new module-making pickers would eliminate the need for four to six workers, two to three tractors, one or two module builders, and a boll buggy as part of a cotton harvesting crew.
With the new Deere picker, it takes only two people, one driving the picker and one driving a tractor to handle the unique plastic film coating round Deere modules, and the tractor. The entire harvesting crew, except for the driver, could be eliminated with the Case IH system that makes a module half the size of a conventional module that is hauled to the gin with an existing module hauler.
As strong as those economic incentives may be, it is not enough for farmers like Philip Bowles of Bowles Farming Co., Los Banos, to whip out the check book and start writing right away.
He acknowledges buying one or more of these pickers to replace older pickers in the future will be an option for his farm. However, as promising as the new technology may be, there is still a big risk as he sees it.
“There is no doubt you can reduce equipment and labor costs, but you are also 100 percent dependent on one piece of machinery to harvest and field store cotton. When that machine goes down, you are dead in the water. That can be costly at harvest time,” he said.
Jamie Flood, Deere's cotton marketing manager, who worked on development of the six-row 7760, said the picker makes a round bale with a maximum diameter of 7 feet, 6 inches. Its seed cotton weight can be up to 5,000 pounds and hold 3.8 bales of cotton lint. It is wrapped on-the-go with a plastic film.
The picker is fitted with a rear round bale carrier much like the big bale square hay balers. This allows the operator to carry completed round cotton bales to the end of the field while making another round bale as he continues picking. The carrier deposits the round bales in the turn row where a tractor can pick them up and deposit them atop flatbed trailers (eight modules on a set of doubles) or they can be picked up by a module hauler (4 round modules per load) for transport to the gin.
It costs $25 to cover each round module with the plastic film, which can be baled and recycled, according to Flood.
With the smaller bale, there is less moisture in the seed cotton, according to Flood. Moisture in a conventional module is 10 percent to 18 percent. It's 6 percent to 8 percent in the smaller, picker-compressed round bale.
This lower moisture content reduces the drying time and energy costs at the gin, said Flood.
It can be fed into a gin on a conventional module feeder, but the plastic must be removed. It can be done by hand or with an automatic system developed by Stover Equipment, Corpus Christi, Texas. It fits over a module feeder and automatically slices and pulls the plastic film from the round bale. It takes two to three people now to operate it, but Flood said Stover is working to reduce the manpower to one person. The Stover equipment apparently folds away from the module feeder floor when conventional modules are moved into the gin.
No cost was given for the film remover equipment, but from the video Flood showed at CCCC, it represents a substantial investment.
Case IH's Module Express 625 operates more like today's conventional module-making system. It makes modules on board the picker that are half the size of a conventional module. These can be hauled by a conventional module hauler, according to Paul Dugger of Case IH.
Dugger said the company has been working on the concept of combining picking and field storage since 1976. Much of the early work on the Module Express system was done in conjunction with a group of Mississippi cotton farmers who initially conceived of the system.
The half size module load is 8 feet by 8 feet by 16 feet. It is also a six-row machine capable of picking rows 30 inches to 48 inches wide. Basically, Case IH engineered a module building within the picker basket. The module made on the go can be unloaded in the same time frame as dumping a basket load of seed cotton in a conventional module builder, according to Dugger.
Two of the mini-modules can be hauled in a module hauler truck or trailer. No special equipment is needed for handling the module at the gin.
There is no carrier on the rear of the Case IH machine, which means once the module is built, it must be off-loaded.
Both companies said they developed their machines based on extensive grower feedback. It is true that both are accomplishing the same module-on-the go goal, but how they achieve that goal is dramatically different.
More than 90 percent of U.S. cotton is now moduled. With $600,000 price tags, it may take a while for these newera on-the-go module-making pickers to reach that level, regardless of how they are engineered.