Case IH has finally unveiled the “worst-kept” secret in the cotton industry: a new six-row picker that builds half-size modules and can drop them in the field, in tact, in less than a minute.

The Case IH Module Express 625 was formally introduced before a crowd of more than 150 producers, ginners, dealers and media representatives at a ceremony at Perthshire Farms near Gunnison, Miss., Oct. 5.

To say the history-making event was a long-time coming would be an understatement, according to two producers who have tested the Case Module Express 625 for several years.

John Deere is also developing a module-building picker, but is not ready to comment on it publicly, a spokesman said.

“This should have happened two years ago,” said Jimmy Hargett, a grower from Alamo, Tenn., who helped provide the initial design for the Case IH machine. Hargett calls the module builder/picker the fourth major innovation in the cotton industry behind the gin, the mechanical picker and the module builder.

“It should have happened two years ago, but there's a lot to be said for making sure it is reliable,” said Kenneth Hood, one of the owners of Perthshire Farms who also has been testing versions of a module-building picker for several years.

Although impatient to get the picker on the market, Hargett, Hood and Sykes and Mike Sturdivant Jr., producers from Glendora, Miss., who also helped test a 625 prototype, were clearly proud of the massive six-row picker that unloaded a “half-size” module in front of a large circus tent at the ceremony.

Hargett had a 1.5-foot by 2-foot section of the concrete shop floor he used to draw one of the initial sketches of a cotton picker unloading a module in the back of his SUV at the event. He saved the piece of slab when he replaced the floor in his shop.

“Several of us have been waiting for this for several years,” said Trent A. Haggard, global marketing cotton industry director for Case IH, who called it the ‘worst-kept’ secret in the cotton industry. “I want to thank you for your patience on this story.”

“We rarely have an opportunity to do something like we're going to experience in the next 24 hours, to see history in the making,” said Jim Walker, vice president in charge of Case IH's North American Agricultural Business, who attended the event along with Randy Baker, the president of Case IH Agricultural Equipment.

But few were any happier to see the new Module Express 625 go through its paces than Jesse H. Orsborn, platform manager for cotton and application equipment for Case IH. Orsborn has been working on bringing a module-building picker to the market for 30 years.

“When the first module builders came out, one of our customers said we ought to be doing that on the picker,” said Orsborn, a native of Belzoni, Miss., who introduced the picker to the audience. “We looked at a lot of concepts from hay-bale type arrangements on down.

““We conducted the first trials in the mid-1970s, but the intensity wasn't there because everyone had plenty of labor. It has really intensified in the last 10 years. These days, everyone tills the land lightly, plants, sprays and harvests. The labor that used to do all the other tillage operations and the harvesting simply isn't there anymore.”

Haggard, another Mid-South native who grew up on a cotton and soybean farm near Kennett, Mo., said one reason developing the picker took a while was that Case IH had to make sure it was providing farmers more than a big hunk of metal. The module-building feature attracts attention, he said, but the machine is part of a total package.

“The Case IH Module Express design started as a collaboration with growers and ginners — a lot of people in the industry have contributed to the development of this machine,” he said. “We've changed for the better the way cotton will be handled from picker to gin.”

The biggest change — aside from becoming accustomed to the sight of a 16-foot-long “half” module coming out of the back of the picker — is in the number of people involved in the harvesting.

“The first question I'm always asked is, ‘Can I get rid of my boll buggy and separate module builder?’” says Haggard. “With the Module Express 625 picker, it's one man, one machine for cotton harvest and module building, so you reduce your equipment and labor investment dramatically.”

How much you save depends on your operation. Hargett has said he believes you can save 10 to 12 workers in a typical harvesting operation. When he was testing two Module Express 625 pickers in 2005, he did it with five workers — two picker operators, two men in a truck putting tarps on the modules and one man driving a tractor with a Bush Hog. Hargett ran four of the new pickers in 2006.

If you operate 12 pickers, 12 boll buggies and 12 module builders as Kenneth Hood and his brothers, Howard, Curtis and Cary have done in the past, “then you've just reduced your work force by 24 men,” says Kenneth. “Not only do you save money, but it's difficult to find those extra 24 people in our area these days.”

Producers may also gain efficiency from other sources, according to Haggard.

The Module Express 625 picks at about the same pace as a traditional six-row picker, but it builds the module at the same time it's picking. It also takes less time to unload a 10,000-pound module than to empty 10,000 pounds of cotton from a conventional basket.

The half-size modules may also take some getting used to. “The modules themselves average 10,000 pounds in an 8-foot by 8-foot by 16-foot format,” says Haggard. “The modules are the same height and width but half the length of a standard module, so other than tarps, they require no alterations in the ginning process.

When truck drivers pick up the modules in the field, they simply load two of the half-size “bread loaves” of cotton. “You have to straighten up the truck a little more to get two modules on, but the drivers quickly get the hang of it,” says Hood.

Handling the unusually shaped modules has not been a problem, says Bruce Cook, gin manager at Perthshire Farms. “When they first started talking about them, I was afraid they might crumble on us when we were handling in the field or at the gin, but I've seen none of that.

“When we put them on the module floor, you can jog them up to where they touch one another,” he said. “You don't know where one begins and the other stops. The other day we ginned 10 bales from one module. When you get that much cotton, that module is really dense.”

“Some of the growers wanted to keep the 32-foot modules,” said Kevin Richman, a Case IH engineer who has been working on the new concept for 15 years. “But that would have simply put too much weight on the machine. After a lot of surveys of growers, ginners and dealers, we settled on the half-module.”

How does the picker build a module while rolling through the field at 3.9 to 4.1 miles per hour? One of the key ingredients is Case IH's Automatic Intelligent Auger Packing System, a patented, first in the industry innovation.

“Using a system of sensors and augers, cotton is automatically moved as the module is being compressed,” says Haggard. “The framework the augers are mounted on also serves as the ‘tromping’ mechanism and compresses the cotton in the module.”

Orsborn, Haggard and Baker emphasized that the auger assembly and other new features are a collaborative effort of producers, ginners and Case IH.

“Jimmy Hargett called me one time and said, ‘I hate to keep bothering you,’” said Orsborn. “I told him, ‘Jimmy, you just keep bothering me because that's what it takes for us to make this the best machine we can produce.’”