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Cotton harvest...: How much equipment can you afford?

With cotton prices for December futures hovering around 65 cents per pound and prolonged drought adversely affecting projected cotton yields, harvesting efficiently is more important now than ever before.

Deciding whether or not to purchase additional cotton harvesting equipment under the depressed financial conditions many farmers are currently operating under makes an already difficult decision even more complicated.

While a number of factors affect a grower's decision whether or not to purchase additional harvest equipment, ultimately it comes down to a "what if" game. What if my average expected yield this year is two bales per acre? What if I anticipate harvesting one bale per acre? What if cotton prices drop to 55 cents or rise to 70 cents before December? What if I'm already experiencing a shortage of available labor? Can I afford to purchase a boll buggy, or other type of equipment, which will require another employee?

The list of possible scenarios is almost never-ending and is likely unique to each farming operation. A harvest simulation model, like the one offered by Mississippi State University, can provide growers with an objective analysis of their individual circumstances. The simulation model looks at yield, acreage, weather scenarios, picker costs, picker capacities, travel times and expected dump times for all the machinery in the harvest system.

The program also allows a grower to play "what if" games to predict what the net revenue would be for his cotton operation within a given harvest system.

"Expected yield for this year and successive years, as well as acreage expectations, must enter into a decision to purchase additional harvest equipment," says Herb Willcutt, agricultural engineer with Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss.

To help guide Mid-South cotton growers' harvest equipment purchases, we put the following scenario before Willcutt for his recommendation.

A Mid-South cotton grower has recently swapped out a two-row cotton picker for a second four-row picker and will soon begin harvest with the two four-row pieces of machinery. The farm operation also owns one manual module builder and one boll buggy. The grower's questions:

Should I buy an additional module builder and/or a boll buggy? And, if I can get by with purchasing only a module builder, does it need to be an automatic builder?

Willcutt's initial reaction is to recommend the purchase of a module builder, especially if the grower's projected cotton yield will be two bales or more per acre, or if there is any possibility of an acreage increase within the next few years.

"A second boll buggy is of very little additional value if it has to wait for the module builder to handle pickers and the first boll buggy," he says. "You have to have enough moduling capacity to be equal to or greater than the picker capacity or boll buggies are practically useless because they cannot dump."

However, he says, "An additional boll buggy would be worthwhile if small fields or soils make it unsuitable to place modules near a turn row. Or, if a grower has odd-shaped fields with extremely long rows that would require the harvester to dump in the middle of the field or travel long distances to dump."

Another consideration, he says, is available labor. "An extra boll buggy will require an additional operator. If both module builders were automatic, then one operator might be fairly effective in keeping both builders operating with a little help from a picker ground crew member or buggy/tractor operator. One automatic builder and one manual builder would not make it possible to operate without an extra operator.

However, one operator on two automatic builders can level out one builder, set it to automatic mode, then go to the other builder to help a picker or boll buggy unload and level off the module, or perhaps move the second builder to a new module site, he says. "I do know of one farmer that had an automatic builder and a total crew of one picker driver."

Another advantage of an automatic module builder, according to Willcutt, is a tighter, more compact module that can better withstand handling and will better resist weathering. In most cases, the automatic operation is not only faster than a manual operator, but is most likely more consistent.

"An operation with a total of six picker row units harvesting a two-bale per acre yield will fully load any module builder," Willcutt says. "Because of the time that the builder operator must spend helping place picker and buggy dumps, and leveling and compacting, a manual builder is just as, or perhaps more, efficient than an automatic builder."

He adds, "With 600 acres or more of two-bale per acre cotton per four-row picker, each picker should be matched with a module builder and include one buggy per every two or three pickers. Increasing yield favors extra moduling capacity first. Many of our growers will have one builder, and one buggy per picker. If five- or six-row pickers are in the future, definitely consider this mix."

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