The cotton fields of Kansas are white with open bolls and late October weather with highs in the 80s make it an awesome time to ride along for harvest.
I got a chance to do just that with custom cotton harvester, Steve Keimeg, who farms in Barber County. He let me ride along in his brand new John Deere baler/stripper, a machine available to growers of stripper cotton for the first time this year.
Picker cotton growers have had the harvesting advantage of this game-changing machine for the past five or six years.
I arrived in the early afternoon to join Keimeg for the finish-up on a dryland field just north of Medicine Lodge that is yielding between 1.5 and 2 bales to the acre.
Keimeg's new machine is a combo behemoth that takes the place of a stripper, boll buggy with tractor, and module builder. It allows a single operator to complete the harvest.
We climbed aboard the machine and started down the field, stripping six rows at a time. At the top left of the cab, a monitor showed the cotton bolls flowing into the hopper, which is similar to a combine bin. A monitor on the right kept track of the steadily increasing size of would become the finished bale. When it hit 90 inches, Keimeg pushed a button to move the cotton from the bin to the big round baler behind it.
With the push of another button, rollers came down to automatically encase the newly formed module in plastic. With the wrap complete, the bale moved out of the bailer and onto a carrying arm at the rear of the machine.
The door closed and the cotton began flowing again into the collection bin.
When we reached the edge of the field, Keimeg lined up his spot and pushed a button to release the module from the carrying arm to the ground.
"Being able to carry the module and go on with harvesting until you get to the place you want it is great," Keimeg said.
He lines the modules up, barely touching, four in a row -- just right for pickup by the module haulers from the gin.
The new baler/stripper has two distinct advantages over the "old way" of harvesting cotton.
First, it makes harvest much, much faster. Keimeg bought two of the new machines for him and his son to use in their own harvest and their custom harvesting business. Together, he said, they can harvest a circle of irrigated cotton in one day.
Second, it reduces the need for laborers down to one operator per machine. Not only does this save money on labor costs, he said, it eliminates the greater problem of not being able to find labor at any cost.
There are some disadvantages as well. The price of the machine to start with is high -- north of $600,000. And the cost of the plastic wrap is also high -- about $35 per module.
"The price of the plastic about wipes out your labor cost savings," he said.
That aside, he says he is having a lot of fun this harvest season. The cotton is good and the new baler/stripper is "one sweet machine."