Throughout the history of agriculture, farmers have sought ways to make their operations more efficient. They have also sought to reduce their environmental footprints, though they often view these efforts as oxymoronic.
Inventor John Daniel Rust and his brother Mack invented the first practical cotton picker in the late 1920s. It used rows of barbed spindles that rotated to remove lint from the plant without damaging unopened bolls or other components.
1. Reduced Labor
Cotton is an expensive crop to grow, and the production process requires significant labor. While this labor is required for all aspects of the process, harvesting is particularly labor intensive. Traditionally, cotton has been harvested by hand. This is because the plant grows in a protective shell known as a boll, which must be opened to reveal the usable fiber inside. This is difficult work, especially when the cotton is growing in tropical or near-tropical humid and hot climates, and it is even more difficult if one is not used to such manual labor.
Consequently, there is a great demand for skilled and reliable labor during the cotton-picking season. This can lead to changes in the availability and cost of labor. Farmers can invest in mechanization or automation technologies to reduce labor costs and improve efficiency.
This technology can also decrease exposure to pesticides and other risk factors. It can increase the productivity of workers and reduce their health costs. The health costs of ill respondents include doctor fees, hospitalization, and laboratory expenses, lost work efficiency, dietary expenses during illness, loss of family member’s income during sickness, and travel costs to and from the clinic. Moreover, the use of precautionary measures such as masks, shoes/socks, long-sleeved shirts/pants, and scarves/handkerchiefs can also decrease the monetary cost of a sick picker.
The history of cotton harvesting demonstrates how important it is to develop efficient and effective methods for such an important task. Before World War II, every step of the cotton production process – from plowing and cultivating to planting and harvesting – was done by hand. This manual labor was not sustainable, as a shortage of available labor caused prices to rise and the quality of the cotton to decline.
John and Mack Rust invented the first mechanical cotton harvester in the 1920s. This machine was designed to pluck open bolls with spindles, fingers, or prongs without damaging the plant. The device could work up to 75 times faster than a worker by hand and was an immediate success. It was a major turning point in the cotton industry.
2. Increased Productivity
Cotton harvesting is one of the most labor-intensive aspects of farming. Inefficient harvesting practices can result in decreased fiber quality and profitability and increased waste and labor costs. Using a cotton picker to help with harvesting can improve productivity and reduce overall labor expenses.
Farmers must balance optimal growth and boll production with weather threats that can degrade the fiber or decrease yields. They also must ensure that the crop reaches maturity before irrigating or harvesting. This requires careful monitoring and a knowledge of the weather forecast. Farmers can use chemicals called harvest aids to stimulate plant growth, remove leaves (the main source of stain and trash in harvested cotton fiber), and dry the plants enough for mechanical harvesting. These chemicals are sprayed with a tractor or with a specialized airplane called a crop duster.
The cotton picker uses a series of spindles that remove the seed cotton from the bolls while leaving the dried locules behind. These are then pulled from the field and collected into a burr, or bag, which is carried back to the farm for processing. This can increase picking efficiency by up to 75%. Increasing cotton harvesting efficiency can allow farmers to process more of their crops in less time, reducing labor expenses and improving profitability.
Despite the increased efficiency of cotton pickers, many farmers continue to rely on manual harvesting methods for the remainder of their operations. This may be due to the difficulty of finding and retaining workers for cotton harvesting. Farmers with poorer soil quality and water availability – particularly those located in remote locations – often have the most trouble finding laborers for their farms.
Female workers can be especially vulnerable to the health impacts of cotton picking. They are exposed to pesticides through skin contact, eye irritation, and inhalation, particularly when adjacent fields are sprayed with pesticides. This can cause a variety of symptoms, including skin irritation and itching, headache, general weakness, dizziness, stomach pain, and diarrhea. Self-reported symptoms can be difficult to diagnose, and the presence of pesticide residues may be difficult to verify without a blood test.
3. Reduced Waste
As cotton farmers know, harvesting is an important process that requires a delicate balance between timing and yield. Harvesting too early can disrupt the maturation of the crop and negatively impact fiber quality while waiting too long can result in a low yield.
Mechanized harvesting practices allow for timely harvesting, which reduces costs and improves profitability. However, these advances can sometimes require significant capital or specialized knowledge to implement effectively. As a result, many growers are reluctant to invest in new machinery or technological advancements.
For those who do invest in a cotton picker, ensuring that the equipment is properly maintained is essential for optimal performance. Insufficient maintenance can lead to poor picking efficiency, decreased harvest yields, and even equipment failure. To help ensure that a picker performs as expected, farmers should keep up with the latest industry trends, seek technical assistance, and perform a cost-benefit analysis before committing to a particular machine or technology.
Cotton picker accessories are also available to further optimize picking efficiency. For example, row-unit choke rods help guide plants into the picking unit and prevent them from becoming stuck during harvest. Mud scrapers are another helpful accessory, as they remove mud and debris from the tires of the cotton picker as it travels through muddy fields.
In addition, picking aids can improve the ability of a cotton picker to pick high-moisture seed cotton and reduce field waste by keeping the conveyor system and row units free from dirt, grease, and sticks. Maintaining a picker properly can also save on fuel costs, as picking more efficiently results in less engine stress and wear.
In terms of safety, a well-maintained cotton picker can also significantly reduce occupational health risks for female cotton pickers. Women exposed to pesticide residues in non-Bt cotton farms report a higher incidence of illnesses such as skin irritation, headache, dizziness, nausea, and gastroenteritis. These ill effects can be mitigated by encouraging cotton growers to use Bt seeds and implementing preventive measures, such as the use of masks and protective clothing.
4. Reduced Maintenance
In addition to reducing the labor needed, mechanization can save on energy costs and other operational expenses. However, it is important to understand that mechanization comes with a price: initial investment and maintenance costs can increase significantly if the machinery is not properly maintained. In order to maximize the benefits of mechanization, farmers should keep up to date on technology trends and seek technical assistance when implementing new equipment.
In 1948, cotton farmers near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, faced a shortage of hand labor, which was essential to harvesting their crops. In response, a man named Mack Rust developed a mechanical cotton picker that reduced the amount of time it took to pick the crop. Rust’s invention was an important milestone in the journey of cotton mechanization.
The machine worked by removing the seed cotton from open bolls without causing any damage to the plant’s foliage or unopened bolls. This was accomplished by using spindles or prongs arranged in the machine’s drum and rotating when they came into contact with the bolls. The spinning action of the cotton picker caused the seed cotton to encircle the prongs or spindles and then be drawn off by a doffer.
Once the cotton was removed from the bolls, it was deposited into the picker’s basket or module chamber and a hopper. From here, the cotton was fed into a “module builder.” This device was designed to pack the seed cotton into eight to twelve bale modules. Typically, the modules would be tied together and placed on a truck or wagon to be transported to a gin or warehouse.
A study conducted by Athukorala and colleagues analyzed the health impacts associated with cotton picking and its costs for women. The study used a pre-tested questionnaire that gathered information on demographics, knowledge of pesticide use in the fields, precautionary measures taken, health impacts, and costs related to cotton picking. The researchers found that the biggest contributor to health costs was loss of productivity. Other contributing factors included medical bills and travel costs to receive treatment. However, the researchers note that these additional costs were temporary and incurred only during the picking season.