The initial information was telling, but also reflective of a Cotton Belt trend.
In June, news from the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture noted that the number of active cotton gins in Arkansas rose to 33 in 2017. That may not look like significant growth, but it came on the heels of five new gins added in in 2016, paralleling the increase of cotton acres in the state.
“With a recovery in cotton acres the last couple of years, Arkansas is also seeing some gins come back to life,” said Scott Stiles, University of Arkansas Extension economist. “The trend toward much larger and higher volume gins is certainly continuing. A gin is definitely a massive investment in equipment that requires a lot of volume to make the numbers work.”
There’s the key word – volume. And it’s driving the move to a new generation of larger, high capacity ginning points across the Southeast, Mid-South and Southwest – most designed to meet the needs of growers who are expanding cotton production in a number of non-traditional cotton geographies such as the northern High Plains.
“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 the 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 last season.
“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 the last season, they bought the other two lines, press and related equipment. We have just completed that installation, so it’s ready to go for this 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 under development over the next two years, all with “incredible capacity,” says Ashley:
- A new turnkey $23 million gin now under construction near Pampa, TX.
- A new facility for Northwest Cotton Growers in Moscow, KS, similar in scope to the initial Adobe Walls project.
- A new four-stand gin being built by Ag Producers Coop in Spearman, TX, near the Adobe Walls facility.
- A new $7.2 million, three-stand cotton gin being built by Associated Growers Cooperative in Athens, AL. Set to open in October, it consolidates several existing gins and will more than double the number of bales processed per hour.
Add to that list several new gins that opened in Georgia over the past two years, another new gin in the works for North Alabama, a new coop gin being planned for Tom Green County in Texas, and upgrades to existing facilities in Oklahoma and other parts of the Cotton Belt. 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 has been our second biggest year.”
Yet in spite of the upswing, the ginning industry still has issues to contend with. One of those current challenges is cottonseed, a longtime source of income for gins and a cost savings for growers. Low market prices over the past year have made it difficult for gins to find a viable market for the product.
“When the dairy industry suffers, cottonseed prices suffer,” points out Ashley. “When soybean and other oils are suffering, cottonseed oil does, as well. And it’s the same with by-products such as meal.”
Smaller seed size and lower seed weights are also impacting the amount of revenue coming into a gin, as well as some of the operational engineering of the gin itself.
“The change in seed size over the last ten years has been documented and is significant,” says Ashley. “There is a limit to how small that seed can be in terms of being able to gin it and make a profit from the ginning.”
Rutherford adds, “The small seed has forced us to look at the geometry and spacing of the gin saws and ribs and change the design of the ribs to eliminate, as much as possible, small seed or seed fragments getting through to the lint cleaning. When that happens, you can have all kinds of other headaches.”
The availability and cost of labor also continue to be key issues.
“That is the highest variable cost for a gin, and if ginners can figure out how to reduce labor, they’re better off,” says 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. “When you choke a 20 bale per hour gin, it’s one thing. When you choke a 60 bale per hour gin, it can be catastrophic. Of course, with the new automation, a ginner can run 60 bales per hour with the same size crew as a 20 bale per hour gin.”
What Lies Ahead?
“Before it’s all said and done, I think we’ll be around 500 gins in the U.S.,” predicts Rutherford. “They’re just going to be bigger, strategic point locations handling larger volumes. Instead of ginning three months a year, they’ll be going for four or five months.”
According to Ashley, quality and efficiency are the two most important things when it comes to operating a gin. And current technological and logistical trends in cotton production will help keep the ginning industry moving in the right direction.
“With the cotton market like it is, with some of the issues with synthetic fibers, and with what we’ve been able to do sustainability-wise in the cotton industry, I think we’re in pretty darn exciting times for cotton,” he says.
From Cotton Grower Magazine, August/September 2018