Ginning Report: Strength in Smaller Numbers

It’s quiet time at the country’s cotton gins right now. The focus shifts to maintenance, cleaning, training, and preparation for the 2022 ginning season.

Any uncertainties about this year’s cotton plantings obviously impact a ginner’s decisions as harvest approaches. But, says Harrison Ashley, the ginning capacity is there to handle a cotton crop of any size.

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“We have the ability to gin a whole lot more bales with the number of gins we have because they’ve gotten larger due mostly to consolidation,” says Ashley, Vice President, Ginner Services for the National Cotton Council (NCC) and Executive Vice President of the National Cotton Ginners Association (NCGA).

The latest USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service numbers show 509 active cotton gins currently operating in the U.S. Back in 1980, that number stood at 2,254 gins and dropped to a little over 1,000 gins by 2000.

“The number has continued to decline as consolidation has occurred,” explains Ashley. “One of the major drivers for this was the advent of the module system. There was no longer a need for a cotton gin at every major crossroad in the country. Growers could haul cotton farther, and gins kept getting larger and larger.

“And now, with the new round modules, the question becomes how much more consolidation could we see?”

The latest ginning statistics show an average of about 28,000 bales per gin – obviously more for some of the larger gins and less for others. In recent years when crops totaled up to 20 million bales, that per gin average climbed as high as 37,000 bales. Capacity is not an issue.

Labor Challenges

Like most businesses, labor is a nagging issue for the ginning industry. Automated systems in the press area of the gin for strapping and bagging have helped alleviate some staffing needs. But concerns remain.

“Ginners are scared about what fall will bring in terms of making sure their crews are there,” says Ashley. “A lot of gins are now using H2A programs, but those are expensive and very involved. We tell our gins that are using the program to make sure they’re working with someone that thoroughly understands the program and can make sure all of the paperwork involved is done correctly.”

In addition to the H2A program, gins also operate under a number of different rules and regulations based on the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Ashley noted that NCGA provides guidance and assistance to gins and recently updated its labor guide to assure gins have the latest up-to-date information available to them.

And the labor issues are not exclusive to cotton gins. The USDA classing offices also dealt with labor shortages during 2021 which caused a significant delay in getting grade information back to gins and producers. Similar issues are expected for 2022 due to labor shortages, increased wage rates, COVID-19 protocols, and supply chain problems. The NCC has requested $4 million in fiscal year 2023 appropriations to help increase automation at the classing offices and assist with long-term labor issues.

Adopting Technology

Machine vision is rapidly attaching itself to new uses and technologies in agriculture, including cotton. One of the uses for gins that is now commercially available utilizes machine vision to identify and remove plastic from cotton before it enters the gin stand to help alleviate plastic contamination concerns.

“It’s a very simple form of machine vision that’s currently relying on color,” explains Dr. Ed Barnes, Senior Director of Agricultural and Environmental Research with Cotton Incorporated. “With processors now being more affordable and faster, we’re going to be able to do more sophisticated things at the gin stand relating to texture and shape of contaminants.”

In the interim, more gins are installing cameras in disperser cylinders and on the module feeder bed to help monitor the condition of the plastic wrap as modules are loaded in. If they identify any issues with the wrap, they can mitigate it as quickly as possible before the cotton reaches the gin stands.

And speaking of wrap, NCGA and the entire ginning industry are promoting the new round module standard developed by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) that sets a minimum performance level for the plastic wrap used in the module harvesters.

“Ginners know that if a module arrives in good condition without tears or holes in the wrap, the likelihood of plastic getting to the final lint bale is greatly reduced,” says Ashley. “It’s very important for growers to know not to buy wrap just because it’s a cheaper price. That’s where we’re going to get into some problems. If the wrap doesn’t have the physical integrity to hold the seed cotton and keep it protected, we’ll have more issues in retrieving those modules from the field and removing the wrap before ginning.

“We hope gins will demand producers to use wraps that meet the minimum standards,” he adds. “It is voluntary, but we’re going to promote it like it’s mandatory.”

What’s Ahead?

Ashley predicts that gins are going to see more electronics, more controllers, more components, and more software programs to provide constant feedback from the machines to help ginners make better decisions.  He also notes that continued adoption of the RFID (radio frequency identification) system is making inroads within the ginning industry.

“With RFID, we can monitor cotton from the time it arrives at the gin,” says Ashley. “But we also have a picker that can provide data that can be downloaded to the gin. After the bale is ginned, we can then use RFID to associate that bale back to the module. Add in classing data, the GPS coordinate for the field, and variety information, then we have information that will be absolutely crucial to the grower and the gin going forward.

“I think folks are going to discover that there are a lot of benefits to using RFID, but we’re really just at the beginning of the technology adoption,” he adds. “Several companies are currently working on gin software programs to help put all of this data together.”

And on the rules and regulations front, Ashley says NCGA is closely watching proposed heat standards closely because agriculture is one of the industries in the crosshairs of that deliberation. Gins could potentially be impacted since the proposed standards focus on both outdoor and indoor environments.

And what about the prospects for 2022? Ashley says it all depends on what happens with the drought in Texas.

“It has everyone’s attention, but it could turn out like last year,” he recalls. “This time last year, I had gins in Texas that didn’t want to do anything or spend any more money than needed to be ready. Then it rained. And by the Texas Cotton Ginners Association summer board meeting, they were wondering how they were going to be able to gin all of the cotton.”

 

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