October rains continue to vex crop: Wet cotton slowing gins

Cotton producers aren't the only ones taking a hit from late-season inclement weather. Delta cotton ginners say a slowdown caused by high-moisture cotton, and low cottonseed prices, are costing them time and money.

“Anytime you've got a module that has moisture in it, it's like hitting a big glob of bubblegum, and gins don't handle bubblegum well. It can quickly choke up a gin and often causes damage to the gin saws,” said Cliff Heaton with Bobo-Moseley Gin in Lyon, Miss. “If you knew the cotton was wet, you could cut that section of the module out and gin the rest of the module. Often, though, it surprises you, and it can take hours to gin just one module of wet cotton.”

According to Heaton, the 2001 cotton ginning season was progressing well until about the first week of October when several inches drenched the area around Bobo-Moseley Gin. “When the rains came everything certainly began moving backwards, and seed quality has been horrible since that point. We completely lost those modules that went under water, and those modules with damaged or missing covers quickly began deteriorating,” he said.

“We're currently ginning about 1,100 bales per day. A few weeks ago when most of the high-moisture cotton was being processed, only about 500 bales were ginned per day. We were running, on average, at about 50 percent capacity because of the slowdown caused by the wet cotton,” he said.

Celeste Malatesta, manager of Columbus Gin in Shaw, Miss., said productivity has decreased substantially due to high-moisture cotton.

“We usually gin between 450 and 475 bales in a 24-hour run. The high-moisture cotton that was ginned after the heavy rainfall in early October knocked that number down to around 350,” she said. “We decreased our productivity by about 100 bales per day and still used at least the same amount of labor and power we would have had we ginned the extra bales. In fact, our electricity costs will probably be higher than normal because of the extra heat required to dry high-moisture cotton.”

Bobby Todd, who operates a gin in Tallulah, La., said his area had a double dose of bad luck with about 4 to 6 inches of rainfall causing damage to the cotton as it was opening, followed by another 6 to 8 inches of rain shortly after growers began harvesting.

“It's taking us longer to gin the cotton because wet cotton just won't go through a gin very well. The wet cotton cakes everything up, and the gin just quits working,” Todd said. “We're running about 500 bales a day when we need to be running about 750 bales a day.”

He estimates that 50 percent of the cotton in his area has at least some water damage.

To make matters worse, Heaton said, cottonseed yields are below normal this year. “We usually get 800 pounds of seed for every 500-pound bale of cotton, but this year there's only about 700 pounds of seed to a 500-pound bale of cotton.”

Bobo-Moseley Gin, like most Mid-South gins, buys cottonseed from producers at the price offered by a local oil mill, and then applies the value of that seed to a grower's ginning bill. In order for one to offset the other, the gin must receive approximately $100 per ton for the cottonseed. “If the value of cottonseed is below $100 per ton, the producer, in reality, ought to be paying the gin to gin his cotton.”

However, Heaton said, that's not usually how it works. “We are getting $75 per ton for cottonseed, and we're not getting as much seed per bale, so it's a double whammy. In the end, the gin is going to be the one to take the hit,” he said.

Todd agrees. “The seed quality has been bad this year and seed prices are low. Our cottonseed has been grading at about 80 percent, and with a price tag of only $75 per ton for top-quality seed, that means we're only getting $60 a ton for seed.

“It's getting tougher and tougher to cash flow the gin, and we need to be charging the growers the difference. Actually, if you were ginning for the seed this year you would lose money, but I don't know where the farmers would get the money to pay us the 8.5 to 9 cents a pound differential,” he said.

At Columbus Gin in Mississippi, Malatesta said, “We are finding a lot of cottonseed that isn't any good because it apparently sprouted in the module and then rotted and turned black. We're getting about $75 per ton for the seed that grades at 100 percent, but some of the seed is grading out at about 84 percent and we're only getting $64 a ton for that seed.”

The late-season rains also affected fiber quality, according to Malatesta. “A lot of our early cotton graded a 21 or 31, and we're not seeing that now. Cotton grades are currently running in the 41s and 42s on those modules that received any water damage, and we're seeing some yellow staining on the affected cotton,” she said.

“When I started farming cotton in the early 1970s, cotton brought about 34 or 35 cents per pound, and we're sitting here today looking at 29-cent cotton. And I haven't seen cottonseed prices this low since 1985, when rotten cottonseed brought $55 a ton,” Todd said. “Seed quality and lint quality are down and prices are low, but, I promise you cotton farmers and ginners always find a way to come out ahead in these situations, and I think that will be the case this year.”

On another positive note, Bobo-Moseley Gin said it will gin a total of 72,000 bales of cotton in 2001. In 2000, the Lyon, Miss., gin cleaned and processed 47,000 bales of cotton with the increase due to an increase in both acreage and yield.

Columbus Gin said it is set to gin more than 25,000 bales of cotton in 2001. That's a 3,300-bale increase from last year's 21,700 bales. “We've seen an increase in production due to an increase in acreage, but we're only seeing yields of a bale and one-half per acre, on average,” Malatesta said.

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