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Column: Advances in cotton harvesting technology

Not that long ago, it seems, the ag community was agog at the introduction of a four-row cotton picker. Although it was the logical next step in the evolution of mechanical harvesters from the earlier one- and two-row machines, it was nonetheless a significant technological leap — and one that farmers quickly embraced.

It was then just a matter of time and engineering skill until larger harvesters were built and farmers were kicking the tires of six-row machines with quarter-million-dollar and up price tags. But savings in labor and critical harvest time made those big bucks investments worthwhile.

The mechanical cotton harvester is considered the second of three “revolutions” in the world of cotton, behind the cotton gin, and followed by the module builder.

It’s a less than well-kept secret that a fourth revolution is in the offing — a cotton harvester with an on-board module builder, which would bring even more efficiency to the harvesting process. A big story, for sure, and everyone’s awaiting the announcement.

As GPS technology has evolved, yield monitors and various sensors have been added to harvesters to give the grower valuable data that can be used for a wide variety of purposes.

At the Agricultural Research Service’s Application and Production Technology Research Unit at Stoneville, Miss., researchers are working with an on-board sampling system that helps determine the different fiber qualities present in a harvested field.

The equipment complements the cotton yield monitor, says plant physiologist Gretchen Sassenrath, who worked with technician Ray Adams to design the system. The project is outlined by Jim Core in the ARS’ latest Agricultural Research magazine.

Adams built a cotton sampler that attaches to the picker’s chute. Every 20 seconds, harvested cotton is diverted into the sampler chute for collection and later analysis. Ginned samples are classed and then yield and fiber properties results are integrated with GPS field position data from the picker’s yield monitor. A color map is generated to show different fiber properties across the field, as well as the variations in value of cotton lint over the field. The GIS map shows growers which areas of their fields need more attention, and which are producing cotton with the best fiber properties.

Sassenrath says spatially sampling cotton during harvesting can help to determine the underlying factors, such as soil moisture variations that can produce “microclimates” that can result in fiber properties being better in one part of a field than in another.

The system, she says, has increased scientists’ understanding of how soil, environment, water, and nutrients contribute to fiber development, cotton yield, and quality — information that could lead to better management scenarios, and better cotton.

“By knowing the value of the harvested crop, based on fiber qualities, growers can calculate their profit margin by subtracting production input expenses.”

While the system presently constitutes “a good research tool,” the ultimate goal, Sassenrath says, is to be able to determine fiber quality onboard the picker and have the cotton classed “right there in the field,” giving producers an instant measure of their crops’ yield, quality, and value.

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