In late August, echoes still bounce around the cavernous Tanner Gin in Frogmore, La. But it won't be long before gin manager Randy Ainsworth is overseeing the frenetic swirl of noise, sweat and dust of a new ginning season.
At this time last year, Ainsworth and colleagues were already in the thick of it.
“We were fortunate last year because we were through ginning before the big rains arrived. Those rains hit about midway through ginning for most other folks. It was only this gin in that situation; the gin 7 miles down the road hadn't even cranked up.
“I don't know why we ginned so early last year. We were just in a pocket of very early cotton. By late August, we were running 24 hours a day.”
The Tanner Gin had already ginned about 29,000 to 30,000 bales (and lacked about 2,000 bales to finish) when the locally infamous 8-inch rain fell and then lingered.
“Those rains set in and folks were a little panicked. Farmers don't want their hard-earned cotton sitting in a mud puddle. Since we were through early, we ended up ginning an extra 10,000 bales for our neighbors. That extra cotton extended our season, but helped us out a lot.
“Those late pickups carried over to this year. We'd be in worse shape if we hadn't picked up 3,000 to 4,000 acres this year off that extra work.”
In east Louisiana, cotton has always been one of the anchor crops. Corn is king this year, though. Cotton acreage is down about 40 percent from last year. The crop looks “pretty good, right now: 1.5 bales to 2 bales is common.”
The Frogmore Plantation, where the Tanner Gin is located, was established in the early 1800s. About 25 years ago, Buddy Tanner and his wife bought a portion of it and then purchased the rest of the plantation and built the gin in 1991. The plantation is currently about 1,800 acres.
While the area largely relies on groundwater, those at the plantation have worked hard to build a system of tail-water recovery ditches (for more, see http://deltafarmpress.com/mag/farming_tailwater_recovery_conserves/index.html). That water is picked up and sent to other fields.
A reservoir was also built to catch winter rains. “When it's dry, like it is currently, we'll turn that reservoir valve on and put water into the ditch system. It's a neat set-up that was well thought out.”
Typically, the gin processes cotton off 18,000 to 20,000 acres from as far as 45 miles. This year, Ainsworth expects that total to be about 12,000 to 13,000 acres.
“We'll notice the big drop in cotton acres. I've been here seven years and this is the first time I've seen such a drop in cotton acres going to corn. There have always been small fluctuations, but this year is a clear winner in that regard.”
This year, three large cotton farmers that normally gin at Tanner Gin didn't grow any cotton at all. “They've gone all corn. Around here, 180- to 200-bushel dryland corn is the norm. It seems everyone is coming in with a good harvest this year, though. Irrigated corn is being cut at around 240 bushels. Who can argue with those kind of numbers?”
In the Ferriday/Frogmore area, “everyone planted corn, it emerged, and then it turned dry. The corn became stressed, and everyone was really worried the crop would die. Then, suddenly, frequent rains set in. Well, that early dry spell forced the crop to put out a great root system. Once the rains arrived, the crop was set and took off.”
Auguring next year's acreage breakdown, Ainsworth says much depends on the next couple of months. “Cotton prices are rising and corn prices are headed down a bit. Next year, I foresee more cotton being planted at the expense of corn. I don't think there will be a huge shift back, but I expect we'll pick up at least a couple thousand acres. The gin should have about 15,000 acres of cotton.”
Twelve gin employees per shift operate the computerized Continental equipment. “Typically, we gin 40 to 45 bales per hour; we have ginned as much as 55.
“We were the first gin — and may still be the only gin — that totally integrated the operation. Through computers, the press knows what the module feeder is doing and vice versa. That helps the whole system maintain itself. It still needs adjustments but much less than before. It works great and is something we've done ourselves.”
Like other Mid-South ginners, Ainsworth and his employers are extremely concerned with safety. “Thank God for folks like Larry Davis (the Southern Cotton Ginner Association's safety director). They've helped the ginning industry push itself to put safety at the forefront.”
Ainsworth says the SCGA safety program really took off when, knowingly or otherwise, it took advantage of gin owners' competitiveness. “Truth is, they all want to be the best. When the safety point system was brought in, it allowed everyone a chance to compete.
“Every year, Davis comes in and grades a gin. Is all paperwork done? That may be worth 100 points. Weekly safety meetings are worth 100 points. The gin grades are based on points accumulated. Did the gin get an A? A failing grade?
“The best gins are recognized annually, and receiving an award is a feather these owners want in their caps. This program has helped push just about all Mid-South gins to improve their safety. The data on this is astounding.
“Davis should get most of the credit,” says Ainsworth. “He works so hard. Consider that he's got to visit 260-plus gins in the Mid-South within two or three months. That is a lot of road to cover.”
Several years ago, after the computer system had been set up, Davis was inspecting the Tanner Gin lint cleaners. He fretted over the dangers of operating the machines.
Ainsworth had an idea. “I told Larry, ‘There may be a solution. We've got sensors watching everything. They know when the shaft is in motion. All I need to do is put a lock on it and, as long as it's turning, it won't open.’ Larry said I needed to jump on the idea.”
This spring, Ainsworth and fellow gin employee Chris Gannon worked the kinks out of the lock system. “We wrote a program for the lock, installed it on the lint cleaner and tried it out. It's just a 1,200-pound, electro-magnetic lock. As long as the shaft is moving, the computer won't allow the lock to disengage. There's nothing scientific about it.”
Encouraged by others to patent the idea, Ainsworth began researching the possibility. “Lo and behold, I found out that 30 years ago a guy in California sold the rights for the same idea to a ginning equipment company — and I'm telling you, if you see his patent, you'd swear I copied it — but the company never did anything with it.”
Installing the lock will cost about $2,000 to $2,500 and takes little time.
“I get the locks off the Internet at www.maglocks.com. If you're already set up with a computerized gin, you can install a lock on the lint cleaner in a little over an hour. If you've got to put the computer in along with the lock, it'll take two or three hours.
“That's a small price to pay. Look at the pain, the downtime and insurance costs of an injury.”
Gins in Louisiana are in a self-insured program. Premiums are assessed based on safety records. A safer gin means cheaper premiums.
“Right now, we're working with insurance companies to help with these lock expenses. We're trying to get the companies to provide a cut on premiums provided the locks are in place.”
Ainsworth is clear that he isn't trying to make money off the lock idea. “This is child's play. Anyone who wants to try this can call, and I'll walk them through it.”
Word is getting around about the lint-cleaner locks.
“If these work out well, I think they'll be installed a lot more next year. Folks want to make sure it'll work first.”