Monday, October 22, 2018

It's Important to Ensure the Cotton Harvest Isn’t All Wet

Some six months after planting the seeds of another cotton crop, growers are finally ready to reap the benefits of their hard work. Yes, it’s harvest time.

The plants are a dry, golden brown after defoliation and the cut-off of irrigation. You can see a sea of puffy white fiber across the fields.

“We’re harvesting,” declared field scout Damien Jelen. “Harvesters are working all day.”

Growers monitor cotton moisture before picking the crop.
Crews are working the fields for 12 hours, often starting around 10 a.m. after the fiber dries off from the morning dew. Usually, the harvesters – with their twirling spindles twist the fresh cotton from the burrs attached to the dried plant stems – end the day around 10 p.m. or when cool nighttime temperatures start increasing the fiber’s moisture content.

While farmers are early risers, they often won’t start at the crack of dawn. It is important for them to manage the moisture content of cotton so that they can maximize yield and protect the fiber quality. 

If the cotton is too wet, the fiber can stick to the machinery and cause jams that can damage cotton balers and gin equipment. Also, harvesters can pick up more trash and leaves along with the fiber. 

Moreover, wet cotton packed into modules can create another problem: “It can catch fire,” Damien says through spontaneous combustion.

On the flip side, overly dry cotton can become damaged during harvest and even ruin the fiber quality..

A round cotton module is ready to be unloaded.
Experts say growers should check moisture content frequently at the beginning and the end of the day. They can hand test or use a meter. Here are some tips:

  • Harvest when there is no dew present and the humidity in the air is less than 70 percent. A good rule of thumb is if there is dew on vehicles during harvest then the cotton is probably too wet.
  • Bite into a cotton seed. It should be hard and crack in your teeth.
  •  Feel the cotton to determine if it’s too wet. The ideal reading on a moisture meter should be around 6 to 8.5 percent, according to the USDA. The reading shouldn’t be more than 12 percent.
  • Moist cotton will jam up in a harvester, causing the fiber to be thrown in front of the picking heads.
  •  Check if dense globs of fiber are thrown into the collection basket.
Alfalfa growers looking for one more harvest this season.
While the cotton harvest is gearing up, the alfalfa crop is winding down its harvest season. Damien says a little rain during the first three days of the month was enough water to trigger a growth spurt in alfalfa.

“Growers are going for one more cutting,” Damien says. Usually, growers in the Valley will harvest six to eight times during the season. They cut when the alfalfa is at least a couple feet tall.

Damien says this final cutting will take place when alfalfa reaches around 18 inches tall. “It will be small bales.”

COTTON FARM TOUR: There is still time to sign up for a behind-the-scenes look at cotton production. The day-long tour is set for Thursday, October 25.  Leading experts and professionals will offer insights about cotton cultivation and processing, addressing issues such as water use, cotton farming practices and the state of the market for Cleaner Cotton™ fiber. Cost is $40 a person and covers bus transportation, a catered lunch at the Cardella Winery in Mendota and snacks and water. The tour starts at 8:15 a.m. at the Best Western Apricot Inn, 46290 West Panoche Road, Firebaugh. Register through the Sustainable Cotton Project’s Eventbrite site.

To reserve a motel room at the special event price, contact the Apricot Inn at
 (559) 659-1444 and ask for “Sustainable Cotton Project — Cotton Farm Tour” rate.

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