Pick a color — red or green, and you can guess about as good as anyone as to how popular the new Case IH and John Deere cotton pickers with on-board module builders will be in 2011.

The rule of thumb to justify buying one of the half million dollar mechanical masterpieces has been 2,000 acres of cotton. In some areas of the Southeast, where 2,000 acres of cotton is not so common, the scarcity of labor has reduced the acreage needed to justify purchasing one of the OMB machines.

Which one to purchase may come down to something as simple as which color you prefer. More likely it will come down to proximity to a reliable dealer — and replacement parts, gin requirements, and labor availability.

Regardless of which color OMB cotton picker is used, there is no doubt the number of these mechanical monsters is increasing across the Cotton Belt.

Barry Nevius, who is head of Technical Services for the Southeastern Cotton Ginners Association, says the new OMB machines have even brought a whole new genre of terminology, filled with expressions new to the cotton industry.

Nevius, who studied the increase in OMB use in 2009 and 2010 says, “Even a simple question like how much cotton did you gin from the new OMB machines can give you a couple of different answers. It may come in number of round modules they hauled and others report number of bales they ginned from the round modules.”

Number shuffling

“Considering the number shuffling, in 2009 it looks like ginners ginned about 4.2 bales per round module in the Southeast. In the same year, there were nine gins reporting ginning round modules, producing about 18,000 bales. Four of these gins had unwrapping machines and the rest were using a wide variety of methods of getting the wrapping off the round bales,” Nevius says.

In 2009, 80 percent of round bales were transported by module trucks and 60 percent were being put on the feeder belts and 60 percent were being put on the feeder with the module truck.

One of the new terms generated by the new round bale modules is ‘sausage style’, which refers to how the bales are stacked end to end on the feeder line. In 2009, about 70 percent of the large round bales were fed sausage style, with the flat end of the bale going into the disperser head.

“After conducting this survey in 2009, I was asked to report on my findings at Gin School and project how much of the 2010 crop would be ginned from cotton picked by OMB machines. From that experience, I developed great sympathy for weather forecasters, because I was wrong on just about everything,” Nevius jokes.

“My guess was in 2010 we would increase from 18,000 to 45,000 bales ginned from large round bales. The best numbers we can get indicate we actually ginned about 238,000 bales from OMB machines, and this only represents gins that are members of our association.

“In addition there were 40 gins ginning large round bales and 10 of these facilities had unwrapping machines.

“One thing that appears to be changing due to the increasing number of large round bales of cotton is more dependence on module trucks to deliver this cotton to the gin. The big advantage is that these trucks are Interstate legal and hauling cotton over longer distances is going to be a lot easier, if we don’t have to stick to back roads to do it”, Nevius says.

“Using module trucks allows the ginner to pull right up to the gin and load directly onto the feeder belt, though you can still go to many gins during peak times and see plenty of these large round bales of cotton around the gin yard, he adds.

‘On the round’ is another new ginning term for these large round bales. “We are seeing more bales going in with the round side of the bale going into the disperser head. More gins, especially those not using mechanical unwrapping equipment and are placing bales on the feeder belt one or two at a time, are putting the bales in this way, rather than sausage style,” Nevius says.

Beer can style

‘Beer can style’ is another way to handle these large round bales. Using this system, the bales are placed vertically on the feeder belt, with the top end of the bale up.

Regardless of how the bales are stacked on the feeder belt, the bigger issue is how to get the plastic coverings off and disposed of safely. There are a number of mechanical unwrappers on the market, but the majority of gins in the Southeast are still in a wait-and-see mode and using low-tech means of removing plastic from these belts.

“One thing is quite clear, from our study, these large round bales are here to stay. More growers than we thought are buying the new pickers and more custom harvesters are going to these machines. The result is going to be more and more large round bales of cotton for Southeastern ginners to handle.

“Safety is a real concern with these big bales. In some cases people are in close contact with a front-end loader and even under these bales taking wrapping off. There is little safety information about how to handle these bales at the gin, and as an association, safety is a real concern for us,” Nevius says.

Cost of handling these new bales for the gin is a question that so far has few definitive answers. North Carolina ginner Wes Morgan says he spent about $15,000 dollars reconfiguring a front-end loader to handle the bigger bales and added some part time labor at times, but the exact cost of handling per bale is hard to figure.

“I think the cost to the gin will vary greatly from one to another. You have to offset the extra cost with how smoothly the cotton runs through the gin,” he adds. “At 40 bales per hour, we need to figure out a way to put them in the gin four at a time — that’s an efficiency thing for me,” Morgan says.

“Going into 2011, I won’t even make a guess as to how many cotton growers in the Southeast will pick their cotton, or have their cotton custom picked using one of the two OMB systems currently available,” Nevius says. “Suffice to say from both the grower and ginner perspective these systems are here to stay and their use is going to increase dramatically over the next few years,” he concludes.