As the number of active U.S. cotton gins continues to contract, the challenge facing the industry may not be so much a loss of infrastructure as one of adequate labor when cotton acres rebound, says Tommy Valco.

“We’re going to continue to see more consolidation of gins,” he said at the annual meeting of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association, held in conjunction with the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show. He is USDA/ARS cotton technology transfer and education coordinator at the Jamie Whitten Delta States Research Center at Stoneville, Miss.

 “We won’t have official numbers from the National Agricultural Statistics Service until May, but we’re estimating there were 660 active gins in 2013, with an average 20,000 bales ginned. That’s down from 2012, when we had 671 active gins, averaging 25,088 bales per gin.”

In 2012, there were 55 active gins in Arkansas and Mississippi and about 30 in Missouri, Louisiana, and Tennessee. “We’ve even had a few new gins built in recent years,” Valco says.

In the U.S. in 2012, 16.6 million bales were ginned; in 2013, that dropped to an estimated 12.5 million bales.

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“While we’re continually hearing about the loss of ginning infrastructure, I don’t worry too much about the mechanics of this,” he says. “I think our gins are able to expand their capacity to handle pretty much whatever is thrown at them in terms of crop size.

“What I do worry about is gin personnel. We just don’t have that many young people moving into the ginning sector. When cotton acres come back, we may face a struggle in finding qualified persons to run our gins.”

One of the key considerations in the industry, as gin numbers contract, is transportation. “The fewer gins, the further we have transport our cotton,” Valco says. “This is a trend that began in the 1970s when the module builder system came on the scene, and now with the round modules, cotton is being transported even longer distances for ginning.”

While planted cotton acres have declined dramatically in recent years, indications are there may be slight increases for 2014. Preliminary surveys show intended increases in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee, while Arkansas and Missouri will hold about steady at 2013 levels.