Round bales or square bales? That appears to be one of the choices cotton producers could be preparing to make as John Deere and Case IH move to the next phase of what might be called the “module-building picker wars.”

After months of virtual silence, Deere gave farm editors and broadcasters a preview of its new module-building cotton harvester at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans. Case IH introduced its new Module Express 625 picker at a field day in Gunnison, Miss., last October.

“John Deere has been working on a module-building picker for a number of years,” said Jamie Flood, marketing manager, cotton products for Deere. “There have been a lot of rumors associated with it, and we want to dispel some of those rumors tonight.”

Editors viewed a video of a Deere module-building prototype harvesting cotton and packing it into a round module wrapped in plastic. The picker can transport the 8-foot wide by 8-foot-diameter module in a cradle at the rear of the picker to the turn-row or to any spot in the field.

The video showed a module-hauling truck picking up four of the round modules at a time and transporting them to a gin. Editors also saw an operator placing the round bales on a flatbed truck with a front-end loader.

“Four round modules will equal one traditional module,” said Flood. “They can be lined up on the turn-row and picked up with a conventional module truck or loaded on a flatbed trailer. They can be unloaded at the gin in the same manner as a conventional module.”

Case IH’s Module Express 625 builds a “half-sized” module and raises the picker basket so that the module slides out on to the ground. Two of the 8-foot by 8-foot by 16-foot Case IH modules can be loaded on a conventional module truck for transport to the gin.

Why is Deere focusing on round modules wrapped in plastic? “It seemed to be the best way to address the objectives that producers have given us for helping them improve their harvest operations,” said Flood. “They told us they wanted to 1) simplify harvesting, 2) preserve fiber quality and 3) reduce waste.”

For a six-row conventional cotton picker, most producers now use a boll buggy, one to two module builders, two to three tractors to pull the boll buggy and move the module builders and at least four to six employees to operate them.

“Our goal is to minimize the equipment and the number of employees,” said Flood. “We believe the new John Deere module builder will remove the need for the boll buggies, the module builders and the tractors and reduce the number of employees.”

Conventional modules can take in moisture from leaking tarps on top or by absorbing it from the ground or standing water. The round shape of the Deere module will promote watershed and the plastic wrap surrounding the outer edge of the module can prevent water from being absorbed into the bottom.

“The plastic wrap will also reduce waste by keeping cotton in the module,” said Flood, displaying a slide of the “ghosts” left by loose cotton lying on the ground after modules had been removed from the gin yard. “It also means gins shouldn’t have to be removing damaged cotton from the bottom of modules that stood in water.”

Studies have shown that a six-row picker typically spends 70 percent of its time harvesting cotton. Another 10 percent of its operating time is taken up waiting to dump, 10 percent in dumping, 5 percent in being serviced and 5 percent being transported from field to field.

“We think we can help operators increase that (picking time) to 90 percent,” said Flood. “Our new system will allow what we’re calling ‘non-stop harvesting.’ They can carry the module to the end of the field, lay it down and continue picking all the time.”

He said Deere is currently working with gin owners to develop a system for handling the round modules and dealing with the plastic wrap. Deere is also testing different plastics that won’t contribute to bale contamination issues.

“We anticipate gins will be willing to make changes because of the benefits they will receive from the new modules,” he noted. “On one hand, they won’t have to be skimming wet cotton off the bottom of modules. On the other, they should have more consistent moisture levels in the cotton.”

Each round module is expected to contain 3.5 to 4 bales of cotton, “depending on moisture,” said Flood. A standard 8-foot by 8-foot by 32-foot conventional module typically produces 12 to 14 bales of lint cotton.

While growers might be tempted to try to move the modules with conventional hay equipment, Flood said that probably will not be recommended because of the increased weight of the Deere round module. “We’re working on other products for helping growers handle the modules.”

Deere representatives said they could not give a price tag for the new module-building harvester or an estimate of how much more it would cost than Deere’s conventional six-row harvesters.

“In the long run, we think it will cost less because of the increased efficiency it will bring to harvesting,” said Flood, smiling. “The machine itself might cost more than a traditional picker.”

A launch date has not been set for the new picker. “We realize there is a sense of urgency in the market now, and we’re working diligently to get it into production. We want to make sure it’s right. Obviously, if it was five to 10 years out, we wouldn’t be talking about it now.”

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com