The fallout from early harvest rains on Mid-South cotton continues. Cotton prices are still the real bugaboo, said several ginners. But from a ginning perspective there are several other things worth noting.
"We’ve noticed problems with module covers and building modules. We had an extremely dry fall in the Bootheel until a spate of early October rains dumped 6 to 8 inches of water in just a couple of days. After that, we started having trouble ginning wet cotton," said one Missouri ginner.
Unlike other ginners, "We didn’t see any indication of water being wicked up from the ground. The troubles around here have mostly been with tarps. But it’s module building, too. If a module is packed right, even a tarp with pin-holes in it doesn’t usually cause too much trouble."
Wind or rain?
The tarps causing the most trouble are those with angled ends designed to combat high winds. These tarps have no mesh and work very well in stopping wind damage to modules — the harder wind blows, the tighter the tarp grips. But the covers channel water to module corners, said the ginner.
"Modules with these covers cinched down tight were victims of an angled surface and the laws of physics. Water is going to run down an angled surface to the lowest point. Unlike a tarp that’s flat and has water going off the side, these cause water to pocket up at the corners."
The ginner said this fall he’s had many modules with the problem. Before sending the cotton through the gin, workers lopped off 25 to 40 pounds of ruined cotton at the corners.
"Sometimes we’d uncinch the cover and water would pour out of the cotton. We left the balance that wasn’t too bad. The only problems we found with modules covered with this kind of tarp were at each corner."
While he’s aware there is a problem with these tarps and rain, the untimely downpours experienced this year have been tough on all types of covers, said Herb Willcutt, Mississippi State University Extension agriculture engineer.
"In these circumstances, any tarp will sometimes have trouble," said Willcutt.
When an affected module hit a gin feeder, it was apparent that something bad was happening.
"We’ll be running middling cotton and then, all of a sudden, we’ll get a bale or two of poor-quality cotton. Then we’ll be back to decent cotton. This occurs about every 12 bales. The bad cotton is at the ends of modules. If you’re running at capacity, a soaked area in a module throws the gin into a bad spot. No amount of heat from a gin will dry soaked cotton economically," said the ginner.
Each cover has advantages and disadvantages. Ginners say the offending module covers aren’t poorly designed and work very well in stopping wind damage.
"I wouldn’t rule out these covers because of this. But they do need to correct that water flaw."
Other covers use no mesh and cover two-thirds of a module. That probably is ideal for stopping rain, but ginners complain they don’t allow modules to "breathe" enough. If moisture gets under that kind of tarp, a bit of wind is needed to help remove moisture.
As in other regions, southern Missouri gins typically furnish module covers.
"A farmer will come in and say, ‘I need 50 tarps.’ Those are checked out to him, and he’s responsible for them. If he only makes 45 modules, he’s in the debit column for five tarps."
Gins have to check the tarps out that way because farmers often gin at two or three locations. A gin might end up with other gins’ tarps.
"So we have to police it to make sure we get back the tarps. The tarps last about three or four years, but they cost $50 to $75 each. That’s a chunk of change for us."
Modules have helped keep the cotton business going, said a ginner from Arkansas. But this year too many farmers are soft-packing them.
"Some of the modules that come in here have the consistency of a Twinkie. When a module looks like a block of concrete, you can tarp it down and it’ll hold. But the soft-packed ones — done for lack of time, laziness, whatever — cause trouble," said the ginner.
Controlling seed cotton moisture is one of the keys to fighting grade loss in a module, said Willcutt. He said farmer should do two things:
o First, pick clean, dry seed cotton. Seed cotton that is below 12 percent moisture will store without appreciable color degradation. Seed that are firm and give a distinct "crack" sound when bitten between the teeth are below 12 percent in moisture. Seed cotton that will fluff back to pre-compressed levels after being squeezed in a tight fist will be below 12 percent moisture.
o Second, pack a module that is well-rounded, front to back and side to side, said Willcutt. That leaves little chance for depressions in the module.
"Once you start collecting water atop a tarp, it doesn’t matter the manufacturer, the tarp is liable to leak. If it starts leaking just a bit, right under the depression, there will be further depression and ponding from soggy and rotted cotton," said Willcutt.
This sometimes causes an area up to 3 feet in diameter to soak up water and to rot from top to bottom.
This year’s loosely packed modules are probably a result of several things, said Willcutt. Decent yields, farmers in a hurry and excessive harvesting capacity for module builders all contributed, he said.
"One six-row picker is about all a farmer needs per module builder. Once the cotton is in a builder, it needs to be packed continuously. About one module per hour is probably about all that should be attempted. Sometimes when there’s a picker sitting and waiting to dump, very little packing is done.
"Modules should be layered and tightly packed.
"Dumping on both sides of the builder also results in a better compacted module. Usually, you’ll need five or six dumps from a smaller picker into a module builder. That’ll be about 14 bales to be leveled out from one end to the other," said Willcutt.
Polypropylene tarps work well for a first couple of years. After that they should be checked closely because they tend to photo-degrade.
"The best tarp probably is one made of a vinyl material. Several grades of material are used.
"The old cotton tarps are still great, but no one can afford them or wants to fool with the weight. Tying them down is a pain."
One way to spread the pressure of the tarp is with a string placed under the module or with steel pins placed into a module.
"Inserting the pins isn’t easy, but by tying the tarps onto pins or strings at two places along the side of the module, it doesn’t put as much strain on the ends," said Willcutt.
And above all, frequent checks of stored modules are essential, especially after rain and wind. If modules have ponded water, drain the water off and schedule ginning as soon as possible, said Willcutt. Replace or repair tarps damaged by wind if ginning isn’t possible and the module is dry.
Missouri looks good
All the news out of the Bootheel isn’t bad. Yields have been surprisingly good. "Our dryland crop really suffered. We weren’t expecting an above-average crop. We’ve ended up with one, though. We were expecting 400 to 500 pounds from dryland cotton, and we ended up with 600 pounds. From irrigated cotton fields that got timely rains, we’re getting yields of more than two bales. Everyone is surprised," said the Missouri ginner.