Boyd Holley started hunting Texas land during the early 1970s. He wasn't there to see cotton fields — he'd just left his own in Morehouse Parish, La. — but that's what happened. Hunting or not, Holley noticed that harvesting those Texas cotton fields were stripper machines. The resulting sorry-looking cotton was striking.

“I wondered how they were going to gin the cotton because it looked so bad,” said Holley, who spoke at the Louisiana Cotton Forum held in Monroe, La.

Some years later, Holley found that a gin stand had been added to the strippers. At that point, stripper cotton looked just like picker cotton.

“That interested me and I began talking to the farmers down there. I remember they would say things like, ‘Yeah, we had to spend $250 or $500 to rebuild a head on the picker.’ Immediately, I noticed the price difference and wanted to know more.”

Holley started talking to John Deere reps about the possibility of running a stripper through Louisiana cotton. The reps, said Holley, said there was no a reason he couldn't run one.

“I wanted to try it, but I wasn't confident enough to buy a machine. Meanwhile, Jack Dailey (Franklin Parish, La.) traveled to Paraguay and saw a stripper picker in action. He came back expressing interest in them. Then, Jay Hardwick (Tensas Parish, La.) said he had the ability to get a stripper for a few days use on the 2000 crop. It was a snapshot. But what we saw was very promising.”

The producers — grown to a quartet with the addition of Richland Parish's Charlie Noble — wanted LSU involved, so that good reference data could be generated. Researcher Bob Hutchinson agreed to spearhead the research effort.

“Last year, we compared a brush stripper to a spindle picker on four farms. There were several objectives. We wanted to look at the difference between harvestable yield and efficiency of these two machines. We wanted to see if there were differences in quality as determined by the classing office. And we wanted to look at fiber value and gross returns for the two systems,” said Hutchinson.

“We also wanted randomized cotton from a stripper and a picker so we could look at yields, commercial gin turnout, and lint yields and shoot the cotton through classing offices. But the big reason we were interested in this study is the difference in cost and ownership of operating a brush stripper versus a picker.”

Ken Paxton, an LSU economist, worked up the numbers using safe parameters. The total cost of operating plus ownership of a four-row spindle picker is about $38.58 per acre. For a four-row stripper the cost is $22.35. That's a difference of over $16 per acre in favor of the stripper.

The numbers cited are from machines used on 1,000 acres of conventionally spaced cotton — 36-inch to 40-inch rows. There was no ultra-narrow row cotton. The cotton was picked in September, and module builders and boll buggies were employed.

“We've assumed that with the stripper machine, harvest must be delayed about an hour to allow the crop to dry down a bit,” said Hutchinson.

Among other assumptions, the picker's performance rate is better because the stripper has a small basket that must be dumped more often. That slows down harvesting.

The stripper machine works by brushing cotton off the plant. An augur pulls it to a cross-augur that carries it to the basket. Several combinations of brushes can be used. The brushes in the heads replace all the spindles and bearings of a typical Delta harvesting machine.

The difference-maker, said Holley, has been the discharge on the stripper. Since it was added, the possibilities for cotton harvesting have opened up. As the machine goes through the field, it removes trash and spews it out from a chute located behind the front tire. The stripper's drum — or gin stand — separates the trash from the cotton. It works just like a stick machine in a gin. Clean cotton then goes in the basket.

Holley's numbers

“When we got the stripper into my field, no one had yet operated it. It's been a learning process. In 2000 my cotton was extremely good grades with no extraneous matter. In 2001 I had grass along the ends of the field. I learned that I need to run some Roundup around the edges before sending the stripper out,” said Holley.

In 2000, there was very little difference in yield between the two machines. In 2001, however, the stripper picked 20 percent more lint from Holley's fields. It went from 962 pounds for the picker to 1,158 pounds for the stripper.

Combining Holley's returns, in 2000 there was an $11 per acre advantage for the stripper machine. In 2001 — even with the grass — there was an advantage for the stripper of $41 per acre. Without grass, the advantage would have been an additional $50 for a total stripper advantage of $90.

Dailey's numbers

Jack Dailey said it is interesting that “when we embarked on this, we started talking to people who had tried (stripper machines). There were all kinds of problems — wet weather, ginners complaining. They basically told us to proceed if we wanted to but flat-out said it wouldn't work.” Despite others' doubts, the stripper did work.

Dailey said one good thing that worked to the quartet's advantage was the weird weather the last couple of years.

“First we had drought and then we had much rain. In both cases, without knowing how to operate a stripper, we've been able to work with one without a bunch of trouble,” he said.

In 2000, Dailey had a waterline that grew up tall in grass. The grass gave him fits, and he thought it might cause some trouble at harvest. It did.

“The grass decreased the value a good bit. The stripper cotton graded around 41, compared to 31 from a picker. But in 2001, the stripper-picked cotton graded 41 or 42, compared to a 31 with the picker.

“We were still in good shape with leaf counts on the stripper cotton. That's really surprising when you see one of the machines driving through a field and picking up everything,” said Dailey.

On staple, there was no real difference between either year or machine. Micronaire counts for 2000 were the same. In 2001, Dailey's stripper cotton did have a lower mike. Uniformity was the same across all tests. Yield-wise, in 2000, Dailey's stripper cotton picked 899 pounds over 776-pound picker cotton.

“I'll take that every time. In 2001, the yield — because of the rot situation — for the stripper showed tremendous difference. The stripper picked up every open burr and deposited the lint, even though it was damaged, in the basket. So we had a 45 percent yield difference in favor of the stripper. If I'd had that across the whole farm it would have made an incredible difference in my farm's bottom line,” said Dailey.

Putting a value on lint yield, in 2000, the numbers were similar because of the hit Dailey took due to grass. In 2001, because grass wasn't a problem, there was a stripper advantage of over $100 per acre.

With the cheaper cost of the stripper, in 2000, Dailey still saw a stripper advantage because the harvest costs were less. In 2001, with the tremendous yield difference, the stripper was $116 per acre ahead of the picker.

Noble's numbers

In 2000, Louisiana had harvest conditions much like Arizona — extremely dry and low humidity, said Noble. In 2001, harvest was much more typical of Louisiana — high humidity with some re-growth.

In 2000, Noble said, there was very little difference in color between the two machines. The stripper's color was actually a little better.

“In 2001, there were a significant number of stripper light spot bales. I believe this is due to the gathering of a much higher percentage of damaged cotton. Instead of dropping to the ground, that cotton was being put into the basket,” said Noble.

Noble's micronaire counts for both years was lower with the stripper.

Where the stripper shined was with last year's much-damaged cotton. This past season, on Noble's farm there was a 25 percent increase in stripper lint yield.

“As far as the value, we had some difference in 2000. But in 2001, we had a $50.93 per acre value in favor of the stripper. If we could have harvested all our cotton with the stripper, it would have made me very happy. What it boils down to, after everything is taken into account, in 2000, the stripper accounted for a $51.41 per acre advantage in gross returns. That number, in harvesting the damaged cotton, was even higher in 2001: $67.17 per acre.”

The stripper was easy to operate, and the daily maintenance routine was significantly reduced from a spindle picker, said Noble.

However, as mentioned earlier, there is a problem with the stripper machine: a small basket. In a good year, the boll buggy man would have a real workout.

“With very few alterations, John Deere could produce a stripper that would be much more adaptable to our conditions in the Delta — a bigger basket, a bit more clearance in the gathering mechanism. If that happens, we'd have something that would work well in this area. I do think we need to continue with a cautious approach. It will take more than a couple of years to learn to use a stripper well in the Delta.”

Hardwick's numbers

Said Jay Hardwick: “The stripper works.”

In 2000, yield data shows Hardwick had a lint yield of 957 pounds for the picker versus 1,014 for the stripper. In 2001, the stripper cotton was 1,043 pounds versus 843 pounds. That's a 21 percent advantage.

For gross returns, both years Hardwick had a stripper advantage of $59.34.

“I used the stripper to scrap behind a picker and picked up an additional 150 pounds of cotton. I'm not saying that's a standard thing I'd do, but that's an option.”

In using a stripper, strict broadleaf weed and grass management is crucial, said Hardwick. This is particularly true with perennials. “Also, be careful with defoliation. Multiple steps may have to be used, particularly if you're prepping. If you don't, the machine can be slowed and efficiency will be lost.”

Agreeing with Noble, Hardwick said manufacturers need to “Delta-size” the strippers. “These small baskets challenged our ability to harvest efficiently. There's plenty of room for improving that aspect of the machines.”

Hutchinson summarizes

Hutchinson said the quartet of producers picked up an average of 126 pounds of lint per acre more with the stripper. Most differences were seen during 2001 because of the stripper's ability to harvest hardlock bolls.

As far as lint value — yield times loan value — the farmers picked up an average of $39 per acre over the locations. Factor in the reduced cost and the stripper's advantage grows to over $56 per acre.

“Cotton buyers often want to arbitrarily discount stripper cotton because of how it was harvested. If we factor in a 3-cent per pound discount for stripper cotton, we'd still see an advantage for the cotton of over $27 per acre,” said Hutchinson.