It’s been nearly a decade since the cotton industry got its first glimpse of prototype versions of on-board module systems. These Transformer-type machines promised the picking efficiency that growers were accustomed to, along with time and labor savings to help speed harvest and potentially make cotton production a bit more profitable.
Red or green, both machines were amazing to watch in action. They still are.
“They have revolutionized how we pick cotton,” said Michael Buschermohle, professor of biosystems engineering and soil science at the University of Tennessee. “They give growers so much more flexibility. They can take a picker into the field with a much smaller crew without module builders, boll buggies and other equipment.”
Buschermohle knows both the Case IH 625 Cotton Module Express and the John Deere 7760 Cotton Picker (now known as the CP690 Cotton Picker, following a number of upgrades for 2015) well. He helped conduct the initial time and motion study and field efficiency work on both units in 2008, logging nearly 30 days riding and operating the equipment. Although the unloading systems for each unit differ, the initial studies showed that the overall economics of operating and maintaining both pickers was essentially the same.
The real cost benefits, however, have been shown to come from the intangibles – labor savings, flexibility and timeliness at harvest.
“Labor is the driving force everywhere,” explained Ed Barnes, senior director, agricultural and environmental research for Cotton Incorporated. “These machines are not inexpensive. Depending on the different economic scenarios on a per acre basis, in theory the cost savings may not be that great and could even appear to be more expensive than a basket picker.”
And, the flexibility of not needing extra labor allows growers to take advantage of weather or time situations to get cotton out of the field on a more timely basis to help preserve fiber quality.
“Those are things that are hard to put an economic value on,” said Barnes. “But there clearly is one. And if you don’t have available and dependable labor at harvest, saving labor becomes priceless.”
Until this year, growers in stripper cotton areas of the Southwest had to watch while their upland cotton counterparts incorporated the new machines into their operations. But with the introduction of the John Deere CS690 Cotton Stripper, the field – so to speak – has been leveled again. And, in spite of current cotton prices, there appears to be strong interest in the new module strippers, according to Barnes.
“When Case IH and John Deere introduced their module building systems, cotton prices were near an all-time low,” he recalled. “But even in that environment, we saw that growers who had figured out how to produce cotton efficiently under low prices were still willing to invest in these pickers.
“I expect that even with some of the challenging prices, we’re still going to see some of these new units go into West Texas this year.”