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Study shows module-building pickers save up to $15 per acre

Ever since cotton farmers began drawing pictures of module-building cotton pickers on their shop floors, they've speculated about how much the new machines could save in equipment and labor costs.

Growers like Jimmy Hargett, who drew the outline of a picker that bears a resemblance to Case IH's Module Express 625 picker on the floor of his farm shop near Bells, Tenn., in 2001, and Kenneth Hood, who built his own prototype of a module-building picker on the Hood farm near Gunnison, Miss., felt the savings could be substantial.

Now they can point to a study conducted by researchers with Mississippi State University and the USDA's Agricultural Research Service that indicates growers can save from $7 to $15 per acre on harvesting and delivery costs with the John Deere 7760 and the Case IH Module Express 625 pickers.

The study, by Steve Martin, agricultural economist with Mississippi State, and Thomas D. Valco, cotton technology transfer and education coordinator with USDA's Agricultural Research Service at Stoneville, Miss., said harvesting and delivery costs ranged from $72.57 to $91.20 per acre for the module-building pickers vs. $98.46 per acre for a standard, six-row, basket picker and handling equipment. (See table.)

“Cotton pickers with on-board module builders eliminate the need for boll buggies, module builders, the tractors and labor needed to operate this machinery,” the authors of the study said in a paper presented at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Nashville, Tenn. (Both the 625 and 7760 were on display at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show.)

They also cited some intangibles in the harvesting and delivery process such as increased field efficiency due to operators having to spend less time for unloading and waiting to unload cotton in a boll buggy or module builder.

Case IH introduced its Module Express 625 in the fall of 2006 and sold a limited number of pickers for the 2007 season. Deere introduced its picker in August 2007 and was scheduled to launch its new 7760 picker for the 2008 season but has decided to delay that until 2009.

Growers who have operated the “Green” or “Red” systems say they have found the labor and equipment savings are clearly evident once you put one of the new pickers in the field.

“The Module Express allows one man to do the work of three,” says Dan Kornegay, who grow 2,500 acres of cotton in Faison, N.C. “It only takes one person to pick the cotton and build the modules. I'm saving about $1,000 per day by running three fewer tractors, hiring three fewer operators and eliminating the maintenance costs of extra equipment.”

Martin and Valco included a number of cost categories that might not immediately come to mind.

The study estimates the cost of production per pound of lint from harvest through ginning for a standard 6-row picker with the needed support equipment (e. g. module builders, boll buggies, tractors and labor), and the two versions of the pickers that build their own modules.

They said their analysis indicated the Red pickers had the lowest harvesting/operating costs per acre, primarily due to the lower assumed purchase price of the Red System vs. the Green.

“The Red System also had lower per acre costs delivered to the gin, primarily due to the lower assumed expenses for tarps/covers and module handling as compared to the Green System,” the authors said. “Both on-board module building systems had a lower cost over the standard 6-row picker.”

John Deere spokesman Barry Nelson had this to say about the results of the study by Mississippi State and USDA-ARS:

“John Deere is finalizing tests on the 7760 Cotton Picker, and we will have results once we officially introduce the picker to the retail market. It would be premature to comment on any field efficiency studies until we introduce the machine to the market place.”

Martin and Valco said the Module Express 625 picks at 4 mph, about the same as a traditional six-row picker, but it builds the module at the same time it's picking, using a framework of augers to move and compress the cotton into an average 10,000-pound module, they said.

The modules are 8 feet by 8 feet by 16 feet and were reported to take about the same time to unload as to empty 10,000 pounds of cotton from a conventional basket. Modules are set on the turn row and two 16-foot modules are handled like a conventional 32-foot module when loaded on a module truck and hauled to the gin. No additional equipment is needed.

In Deere's new 7760 on board, round-module-building cotton harvester, cotton flows from the picker heads into an accumulator, then is formed into a round module, wrapped in plastic and deposited onto a transport reel without stopping. The modules weight about 5,000 pounds and are 8 feet wide by 7.5 feet in diameter.

John Deere designed the harvester to operate at a speed of 4.2 mph, which represents a 5 percent increase in normal picking speeds of 4 mph. John Deere estimates an improved field efficiency of 90 percent, compared to a conventional six-row harvester of 70 percent.

The wrap is estimated to cost about $25 per module. A special device, Cotton Module Handler, attaches to a 200-hp tractor and is used in the field to assemble the round modules into rolls of four which can be picked up with a conventional module truck and hauled to the gin. In the gin, a round module unwrapper, developed by Stover Equipment Co., is used to remove the plastic wrap prior to entering into the module feeder.

Deere officials, however, have reported savings from reducing the amount of cotton that can be lost when moisture wicks into the unprotected bottom side of a standard cotton module.

Harvesting costs for each of the systems were calculated as costs per acre with the assumption of 1,000 pounds per acre lint yield. The expenses for a standard six-row picker and support equipment were taken from the Mississippi State Budget Generator. Harvesting costs for the two module-building pickers were adapted from the standard picker information in the MSBG.

The MSBG assumes a speed of 3.6 miles per hour and a field efficiency of 70 percent, but the researchers conducting the studies altered those for the Red and Green Systems, they said.

“Our study assumes a harvest speed of 4.0 miles per hour for both the Red and Green Systems and a field efficiency of 80 percent for the Red System (includes additional down time for staging modules) and 85 percent for the Green System since the operator does not have to stop the Green machine to unload.

“Purchase prices for the new machines were estimated at $450,000 for the Red System and $498,000 for the Green System. (Information released by John Deere put the list price for the 7760 much higher than listed in the MSU-ARS study.

Martin and Valco said they assumed one person “on the ground” per two machines from the Red System to place tarps on the modules with a cost of 75 cents per bale assumed for the tarps. For the Green System a cost was included for a tractor and module handler per two machines. Wrapper cost was estimated at $15.15 per acre.

Module hauling expense in the study was based on 20,000 pounds per trip or 15 bales at $4.25 per bale or $8.50 per acre. “In this analysis, hauling expense was increased an additional 50 cents per acre for both the Red and the Green systems because of the additional time for picking up two and four modules, respectively.”

The MSBG ginning cost for each of the harvesting systems was included in the analysis. “An additional expense to modify the gin module feeder for the wrap removal was added to the Green System, which was approximately $250,000 in fixed capital expenditures plus the cost of two additional employees. Fixed expenses were amortized over 20 years with an 8 percent discount rate and a 10 percent salvage value.”

Growers say the labor savings can be more than just reducing costs. In some areas, finding seasonable labor to operate module builders and tractors pulling boll buggies can be difficult.

“My son was able to pick cotton by himself with the Module Express, says Edward Fiveash of Donalsonville, Ga. “We needed five less people to harvest. It was a tremendous labor saver and the machine does an excellent job of picking.”

The module-building pickers allow growers to use freed-up labor for purposes other than throwing cotton back in a module builder or towing boll buggies around the field.

“It used to require all my labor and equipment,” grower Mike Sturdivant of Glendora, Miss., said. “Now I'm able to use that labor for fall tillage work.”

Less maintenance is another intangible cited by growers who used the module-building pickers in 2007. (Although Deere has not commercially introduced the 7760, it had a number of units in the field in 2007.)

Daryl Packet of Anderson, Texas, who custom harvests 16,000 acres of cotton, used a Module Express as one of the cotton pickers in his fleet last year and plans to move to the Module Express to reduce maintenance costs, labor needs and freight costs.

“I will have 14 fewer pieces of equipment to maintain and will need fewer employees,” he said. “That means less hotel bills, less liability and less insurance. I'll also be able to truck equipment in one day and be ready to go the next. I'll be able to eliminate about eight loads of equipment every time I move to a new area.”

Bill Walker of Somerville, Tenn., notes the Module Express cuts down maintenance of other equipment, as well. “This machine eliminates the need for boll buggies, module builders and the associated tractors. Anytime you get rid of equipment, you eliminate the time to maintain that equipment. That's less equipment to break and less downtime.”

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