Cotton Ginning Goes Bigger, Better, Faster
Ask almost anyone in the ginning industry today, and you’re likely to hear a comment similar to this: “A gin is a massive investment in equipment that requires a lot of volume to make the numbers work.”
Volume is the key word. And it’s driving the move to a new generation of larger, high capacity ginning points across the Cotton Belt – many of which are being designed and built to meet the needs of growers who are expanding cotton production in non-traditional cotton geographies such as the northern High Plains of Texas.
“Over the last 30 years, we’ve seen a 75% reduction in the total number of gins,” says Harrison Ashley, vice president, Ginner Services for the National Cotton Council and executive vice president of the National Cotton Ginners Association. “A lot of older, smaller gins have closed, and the ones that have remained are those that have invested in larger equipment and the newest technologies to increase capacities. If you look at the volumes that some of these gins are ginning, it’s just amazing.”
A case in point is the Adobe Walls Gin in Spearman, TX. A $14.5 million addition of a second gin line and press in 2017 made Adobe Walls the largest cotton gin facility in the U.S., allowing it to more than double its production to approximately 280,000 bales.
“The first phase of that project was a 6-less-2 outfit – one press, all the pre-cleaning and room for two more stands and another press,” says Ross Rutherford, vice president of Product Management and Marketing for Lummus Corporation. “Before the end of their initial ginning season, they bought the other two lines, press and related equipment. That installation was ready to go for the 2018 season.”
Combined with an existing gin on the same property, Rutherford estimates that this ginning point in Spearman could now produce up to 400,000 bales annually.
And that’s just one of several new ginning facilities either under construction or in development over the next two years, all with “incredible capacity,” says Ashley. Several of these facilities are providing much needed capacity for Texas growers, including a new turnkey $23 million gin near Pampa, TX; a new four-stand gin being built by Ag Producers Coop in Spearman, TX, near the Adobe Walls facility; and a new coop gin planned for Tom Green County.
And when you add new ginning facilities in Georgia, North Alabama, Kansas and Oklahoma to the list of new and expanded projects in Texas, the trend seems to be snowballing. That’s a strong optimistic turn for an industry that was struggling less than a decade ago.
“We’ve gone from building one gin in the entire world in 2009, and it was three miles from our office in Lubbock,” recalls Rutherford. “In 2010, the business started moving back to where we needed to be. So far, 2018 was our second biggest year.”
Strong Ginning Infrastructure
One of the biggest factors in the rapid expansion of ginning facilities in the Northern High Plains has been development of shorter season, early-maturing cotton varieties that thrive in that area, as well as in Oklahoma and Kansas. A declining water table is also driving a shift in corn acres over to cotton.
“We have about 208 operating gins in Texas right now, positioned well to handle ginning in all of the major cotton-producing regions,” says Tony Williams, executive vice president of the Texas Cotton Ginners Association. “We’ve been seeing some expansion in several areas over a 10-year period, and where acres have increased, gins have adjusted.
“We have the ginning infrastructure in Texas to handle good crops and big crops.”
Williams points out that additional expansion may be coming in the Coastal Texas area, primarily by revamping and rebuilding existing gins with higher capacity equipment and additional presses.
“It’s an exciting time in Texas with expansion into an area where we haven’t seen much growth,” he adds. “We’ll have a lot of capacity up there to handle the growth, which should continue for a few more years.”
Labor Is a Lingering Concern
The availability and cost of labor continues to be a key issue.
“Labor is the highest variable cost for a gin, and if ginners can figure out how to reduce staffing needs, they’re better off,” explains Ashley. “But, when you look at volumes of ginning and the variable overall costs, the more bales a gin can gin, the less it costs on an individual basis to gin that bale of cotton. Economies of scale show up big time in cotton gins.”
From an engineering perspective, that means a greater reliance on – and shift to – more automation.
“We are doing more automation and product development to help troubleshoot, anticipate problems and eliminate downtime,” notes Rutherford. “It’s one thing when you choke a 20-bale per hour gin. When you choke a 60-bale per hour gin, it can be catastrophic. New automation will allow a ginner to run 60 bales per hour with the same size crew as a 20-bale per hour gin.”
According to Ashley, quality and efficiency are the two most important aspects when it comes to operating a gin. He’s confident that current technological and logistical trends in cotton production will help keep the ginning industry moving in the right direction.