Editor's note: It's both the best-kept and worse-kept secret in the industry. This we know. At least two equipment manufacturers have been testing the concept of an on-board module builder for several years now. In the case of one, the red one, nobody — save for a handful of people — knows what it looks like or exactly how it works. To further deepen the mystery, there was a study on the economic impact of such a device presented at the 2004 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio. So, with apologies for presenting information on something that doesn't officially exist yet, here is how the on-board module builder could impact a farmer's bottom line.

A cotton picker with an on-board module builder could save a cotton producer between 11 percent and 38 percent in total harvesting costs per acre, according to an economic study presented at the 2004 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio.

Mississippi State University agricultural economist David Parvin used a budget generator to estimate the cost of harvesting cotton with current six-row harvesting technology versus a six-row picker with an on-board module builder. Parvin noted that the on-board module technology would likely only be available on machines with six picker heads.

Harvesting machines for the study were priced at $275,000 for a conventional picker and $350,000 for a picker with an on-board module builder.

“We also assumed that the picker with on-board module builder would not significantly change the cost of hauling the seed cotton to the gin nor the cost of ginning. The analysis does not include scrapping.”

Parvin compared nine theoretical harvesting systems — three farm sizes of 1,500 acres, 3,000 acres and 4,500 acres. Each farm had three yield levels of 800 pounds, 1,000 pounds and 1,200 pounds.

System One — 1,500 acres and an 800-pound yield — assumed one picker, one boll buggy and one module builder would be needed to harvest with current technology, while one picker with an on-board module builder would be needed with the new technology.

A picker with an on-board module builder would require no tractors, one operator and one support laborer, while current technology would require two tractors, three operators and two support laborers.

The total per-acre harvesting cost for current technology in this example was $58.77, versus $52.25 for a system using an on-board module builder, a difference of $6.52, or 11 percent.

“Some people may not get excited about $6.50 an acre,” Parvin said. “But the first thing that jumps out to the economist is that the direct impact is going to be a function of the number of module builders and boll buggies that an on-board module builder can replace,” Parvin said.

For example, as yield increases on the 1,500-acre farm, savings increase significantly for the on-board module builder. According to Parvin's study, it would cost $84.78 per acre to harvest a 1,200-pound yield on 1,500 acres with current harvest technology, an increase of $32.53 per acre over the 800-pound/1,500-acre example. The high yield system would require five tractors, six operators and four support laborers

Number of 6-row cotton pickers, module builders (MB) and boll buggies (BB) [Current Technology] and number of cotton pickers with onboard module builder (PwOBMB) [New Technology], 9 harvesting systems [3 farm sizes (acres of cotton) and 3 yield levels (lbs. of lin per acre)]
Current Technology New Technology
System Acres Yield Pickers MB BB PwOBMB MB BB
1 1,500 800 1 1 1 1 0 0
2 1,000 1 2 1 1 0 0
3 1,200 1 3 2 1 0 0
4 3,000 800 2 2 2 2 0 0
5 1,000 2 3 2 2 0 0
6 1,200 2 4 3 2 0 0
7 4,500 800 3 3 3 3 0 0
8 1,000 3 4 3 3 0 0
9 1,200 3 5 4 3 0 0
Total costs and total cost per pound of lint comparisons, current cotton harvest technology versus new technology, 9 harvesting systems (3 farm sizes and 3 yield levels)
Current Technology New Technology Diff. Savings
Systems Acres Yield $ ¢/lb $ ¢/lb ¢/lb %
1 1,500 800 58.77 7.346 52.25 6.531 0.815 11.09
2 1,000 67.96 6.796 52.25 5.225 1.571 23.12
3 1,200 84.78 7.065 52.25 4.354 2.711 38.37
4 3,000 800 117.54 7.346 104.50 6.531 0.815 11.09
5 1,000 126.73 6.337 104.50 5.225 1.112 17.54
6 1,200 143.55 5.981 104.50 4.354 1.627 27.20
7 4,500 800 176.31 7.346 156.75 6.531 0.815 11.09
8 1,000 185.50 6.183 156.75 5.225 0.958 15.49
9 1,200 202.32 5.620 156.75 4.354 1.266 22.53

But costs for an on-board module builder remain at $52.25 per acre across all the yield scenarios for a 1,500-acre farm. A 1,200-pound yield would require no tractors, one operator and one support laborer, the same requirements it had with an 800-pound yield scenario.

The savings under that scenario were 38 percent, the highest return of all nine systems.

Parvin also discussed a case study of two farmers who ran prototypes of the on-board module builders in 2003.

Producer One has 12 four-row cotton pickers supported by 12 module builders and 12 boll buggies, requiring 36 operator laborers and 24 support laborers. He expects to harvest the same acreage with six, six-row pickers with on-board module builders, requiring six operator laborers and six support laborers.

“That's where the real economics is going to be,” Parvin said. “Going from 36 operators and 24 support people to six and six, that's a big number.”

Producer Two has four six-row cotton pickers supported by trailers and two tractors. The system requires six operator laborers and eight support laborers. He expects to harvest the same acreage with three six-row pickers with on-board module builders, requiring three operator laborers and three support laborers.

Bells, Tenn., cotton producer Jimmy Hargett, a driving force behind the development of on-board module builder technology, said he could not discuss the concept in detail. He couldn't resist adding, “But it could be the only machine that I know of that will allow one man to harvest his crop.”

Parvin added that the biggest concern with harvesting costs is not so much the people it takes to accomplish it, but the cost of the cotton pickers, even with the new technology.

Growers could address this if they had the option of removing heads and the basket from pickers and attaching a planter or other tool to the platform. “We wouldn't have to use it for just a month during harvest season. We could use it all the time.

“If the red or green folks aren't the ones to do this, some other company will. The most likely companies will be the ones who make the boll buggies and module builders.”

Number of tractors, operator laborers and support laborers, current cotton harvest technology and new technology, 9 harvesting systems (3 farm sizes and 3 yield levels)
Current Technology New Technology
Laborers Laborers
System Acres Yield Tractors Operator Support Tractors Operator Support
1 1,500 800 2 3 2 0 1 1
2 1,000 3 4 3 0 1 1
3 1,200 5 6 4 0 1 1
4 3,000 800 4 6 4 0 2 2
5 1,000 5 7 5 0 2 2
6 1,200 7 9 6 0 2 2
7 4,500 800 6 9 6 0 3 3
8 1,000 7 10 7 0 3 3
9 1,200 9 12 8 0 3 3

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com