With the arrival of new varieties tolerant of the herbicides 2,4-D and dicamba, falling prices for traditional grain crops such as wheat and milo, and the continued depletion of water supply for corn and soybeans, cotton has exploded as a Kansas crop.
"We doubled acres for 2017 and then doubled again in 2018," says Rex Friesen, Southern Kansas Cotton Growers' public relations manager. Southern Kansas Cotton Growers has two Kansas gins, one at Winfield and another at Anthony. Both are undergoing major expansion projects this year.
"We went from ginning about 25,000 bales in 2015 to 92,000 bales last year, and this year we are expecting to gin about 180,000 bales. Our acres have doubled year over year for the last three years, and yields look to be really good again this year — our sixth year in a row of good yields," he says. "That kind of growth requires more capacity for ginning."
That kind of growth is typical across the entire state. Growth has been so strong in the Northwest Cotton Growers group that members have undertaken a $16-million project to construct a new, larger gin close to their existing one near Moscow.
The Next Gineration Inc. gin at Cullison underwent a $500,000 repair and rebuilding project after a fire in 2017, and there are additional work and equipment upgrades underway this year.
The project at Winfield
Winfield has the distinction of being the oldest gin in Kansas, having been constructed (or re-constructed) in 1995 from the pieces of a defunct gin purchased in western Oklahoma.
Kansas cotton pioneer Carl Seeliger and his son, Mike, were among the first farmers to try growing cotton, and they were instrumental in the building of the first gin, a project that Carl insisted should be a cooperative.
"This gin was old to start with, and it's been here for more than 20 years," Friesen says. "It takes a lot of work to keep it in good operating shape, and to keep remodeling and modernizing the operation to meet demand."
Last year, the Southern Kansas Cotton Growers' gins at Winfield and Anthony were upgraded to add automated operation from touchscreen computers. New fire detection and suppression equipment was added as well, and Winfield added a new presser — an automated bale strapping system that eliminated the exhausting and dangerous job of workers threading wire into the presser.
This year, that presser has been taken out and completely overhauled, and a brand-new lint slide system is under construction. The lint slide project has literally required raising the roof of the building 12 feet to fit in a new steam roller that will add moisture to the lint and reduce the wear on the press.
All three gin stands, and the cleaners that work with them, have been taken apart for regular maintenance. All parts are inspected for wear and replaced as necessary.
"We try to do upgrades every year to stay ahead of the maintenance," says maintenance supervisor Sterling Shepherd. "One of the big changes we have seen is the move to big round bales as opposed to the rectangular modules. We have to be able to handle both."
Winfield is also getting expanded space in the hull house, and an extension behind the gin to move the bur pile much further from the back of the building – something that will reduce the danger of a spark from ginning operation causing the bur pile to catch fire.
Gin fires was one of the worst problems for the growing industry last year. Hotter, drier weather and high winds were blamed for dozens of gin fires in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
When the work at Winfield is complete, Friesen said he expects capacity to increase from about 22 bales an hour to 28 to 30 bales an hour.
The project at Anthony
The renovations being made at Anthony are bigger — and costlier — than the work ongoing at Winfield.
The gin is being expanded to add two additional gin stands to the existing three, along with the cleaning lines that support them and a brand new, automated press and bale strapper like the one installed at Winfield last year.
The goal is to come close to doubling capacity at Anthony from about 22 to 25 bales per hour to between 45 and 50 bales per hour, Shepherd says.
One goal of the remodeling project is to ensure that ginning is completed in a timelier fashion than it could be accomplished this year, he adds.
"There's always a lot of rebuilding and refurbishing and general maintenance to be done between seasons," Shepherd says. "If you don't finish the season fairly early in the year, you just don't have enough time to get the work you need done before it's time to start the next season."
It's still unclear how soon the cotton crop will be ready for harvest to begin, especially since much of the growing area has been getting heavy rains that may slow down the crop progress, which had been considerably ahead of the last two years, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service Crop Progress report of Sept. 2, which showed setting bolls at 95%, well ahead of 68% last year and the average of 75%. Bolls opening was at 17%, ahead of the average of 11% for early September.
The stats also bore out the excellent prospects for the crop with only 3% rated poor to very poor and 72% rated good to excellent.
That prospect for yield, along with a doubling of acres planted, is what has the coop concerned about ginning capacity and what has driven the remodeling projects.
The project at Moscow
The arrival of varieties tolerant of 2,4-D gets the credit for the jump in cotton acres, says Jerry Stuckey, who managed the gin at Moscow for the Northwest Kansas Cotton Growers for years and then came back to manage the construction when the co-op decided to build a newer, bigger gin just a few miles from the existing one.
That gin will open in a 375-by-200-foot building, a $16 million investment that showcases the faith the co-op has in the future of cotton in Kansas.
"We're losing our water; the wells are dropping," Stuckey says. "If you look to the south of us, that's been the case earlier and we've seen how cotton has increased as producers lose the water they need to raise irrigated corn."
Stuckey says Moscow ginned the cotton from about 29,000 acres in 2017. In 2018, producers planned to plant about 70,000 acres. Some was never planted because of a very dry winter and spring and more died after germination because hoped-for rains didn't arrive. Still, he says, the gin expects about 50,000 to 55,000 acres will be harvested.
Stuckey was one of his area's first cotton growers.
"In 2000, I planted about 40 acres of irrigated cotton and Tommy Lahey planted 40 acres of dryland. It caught on fast, and in 2002 we built the first gin out here."
Drift of 2,4-D soon discouraged producers. Hundreds of acres a year were destroyed, and production fell. When tolerant varieties were introduced, just as prices for competing grains were falling as fast as well levels, cotton came roaring back.
Stuckey says he feels a kinship with the early adopters in south-central Kansas.
"In 2000, when we planted our first cotton, we went to Winfield to get seed," he says.
He says Northwest Cotton Growers hopes the new gin will be in operation by February of 2019, in time to finish up the ginning of the 2018 crop.
He says the area has overwhelmingly adopted picker-baler technology.
"Our first round bales were two years ago," Stuckey says. "We went from zero to about 60% the first year and last year about 90 to 95% round bales."
Like other gins, Stuckey says the Moscow gins have faced the issue of fire danger and improvements are being made for both fire detection and suppression.
"We have water rights to an irrigation well and plans are to develop that for fire hydrants," he says. "We plan to develop that to provide unlimited water for firefighting, but the full buildout of that project has been delayed because we just don't have the money to do both the new gin and that system and we felt that the added capacity was the first priority.
Cullison gin also being upgraded
The Next Gineration group that purchased the Cullison gin in 2016 has undertaken upgrades that will help speed up the ginning process and add efficiency while reducing the number of workers needed, according to David Lingle, who took over as manager of the gin in May.
After a fire in 2016, the major work completed in 2017 was rebuilding the trash handling system that burned, he says, but this year has brought upgrades to the air system, the first phase of a modernized control system, upgrades to the press console and the installation of an auto-bagger.
Lingle says it is hard to predict how the 2018-19 ginning season will go, but the gin is gearing up for as much as 70,000 bales.
"We had some losses to hail and all the rain and cool weather in late August has really slowed the crop down," he says. "I think our final numbers will be somewhere between 55,000 and 70,000 bales."
Next year, Lingle says, plans call for adding additional gin stands and completing the modernization of the control system.
"Of course, we are well aware of the problems gins all over cotton country have had with the danger of fire," he says. "We've had some instances where modules were smoldering on the inside for weeks before finally burning through to the outside."
Lingle says even a spark during the baling operation can cause the core of a bale to be smoldering and when it is broken open at the gin and exposed to air, it bursts into flame and fire can spread rapidly.