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Picker harvesters may benefit West Texas farmers some years

West Texas cotton farmers who switched from stripper-type varieties to picker cotton may also benefit, some years, by using a spindle picker to harvest the crop.

“In higher yielding, higher quality fields, picking offers an economical alternative to stripping,” says Jay Yates, Texas A&M Extension economist at Lubbock.

Yates presented research findings from the 2004 and 2005 crop years at the January Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans.

Yates said the switch to pickers may be feasible because of an evolution in variety selection on the Texas High Plains. “The past five years have seen major changes in cotton production and marketing,” he said.

The first is a move away from traditional stripper varieties to picker cotton. Yates said in 2001, 91 percent of all cotton planted in the area was to stripper cotton with 9 percent in picker types. By 2006, picker varieties accounted for 55 percent of the acreage served by the Lubbock classing office. A similar change occurred in the Lamesa classing area where 77 percent of the cotton varieties planted in 2006 were picker types, compared to zero percent stripper cotton. In 2001, stripper cotton accounted for 57 percent and picker cotton 21 percent.

Yates said overall quality also improved in that five-year period with significant gains in color, strength, staple length and uniformity. “The most remarkable category of change related to staple length is in cotton grading 36 or longer,” he said.

Before 2003, season average staple length above 36 never topped 17 percent. “The number of bales in this category has climbed to 71 percent for 2006.”

He said strength values also improved but not as dramatically.

Irrigation's role

In addition to newer varieties, irrigation played a role in improved yield and quality. “Increased production north of Amarillo (typically corn country with ample irrigation water and land not in continuous cotton production for years) added to quality improvements.”

Increased acreage in drip irrigation also contributes to higher yields and better quality, Yates said. Currently, from 250,000 to 300,000 acres in the High Plains has subsurface drip irrigation systems installed with 20,000 to 30,000 more going in each year.

Success of the boll weevil eradication program also adds pounds to cotton yields.

Yates said loss of the domestic market and reliance on exports puts a premium on better quality cotton.

“The need to preserve the improved quality characteristics of newer varieties grown under high-level production systems has created a great deal of interest in the economic viability of harvesting with cotton pickers,” he said.

Yates said a research project spanning the 2004 and 2005 crops compared stripper harvest to pickers. They used the same varieties, FiberMax 960 RR and 989 RR and harvested with a John Deere 7460 stripper with field cleaner and a John Deere 9910 picker.

The study evaluated yields, HVI quality grades, and machinery costs and maintenance expenses.

Weather factors

Yates said results from 2004, a year with quality and yield problems created by poor harvest weather conditions, showed the stripper with a “distinct advantage to the picker when we compare the bottom lines. The stripper had a significantly higher net return of $269.25 per acre compared to $198.83 for the picker, a $70.42 per acre advantage.”

In 2005, with higher yields, “the advantage begins to swing toward the spindle picker,” Yates said. “At the yield level in this study (approximately 1,200 pounds ) there is virtually no difference in the bottom lines of the two harvest methods. The cotton picker netted $641.95 per acre after all harvest costs while the stripper came in at $652.14.

“These data suggest that at these relative levels, a field could be picked for a comparable net return over harvest costs, leaving the decision whether to strip or pick to other factors.”

Yates said another issue in the decision between a picker and a stripper could be the cash price differences paid by merchants. He said the difference between prices paid in the 2005/2006 marketing year at Phoenix, Ariz., and Lubbock, Texas, for the same grade (31-3-36) was a 292-point premium to Phoenix. “Except for varieties grown in the Phoenix area being somewhat longer season in nature, there were no other differences between the two growths other than most of the cotton classed at Phoenix was picked and most of the cotton classed at Lubbock was stripped.”

Yates said the study did not consider the increased financial risk of doubling the machinery debt with a picker vs. a stripper in a year when hail or drought reduce crop prospects below the economic threshold where picking would show an advantage. In the Texas High Plains those years “occur with alarming frequency,” he said.

But the picker is able to perform “for extended hours in poor harvest conditions without greatly reducing grades with high bark content. In a year like 2004, when it just wouldn't dry up enough to get a stripper in the field, the ability to get back in faster without sacrificing quality could be invaluable.”

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