Cotton Harvest in New Mexico

It’s cotton season across southern New Mexico as farmers prepare to harvest an estimated 68,000 acres of the fiber. While cotton production is down from years past, there used to be so much cotton produced in the state that Las Cruces is home to one of only three USDA Cotton Ginning Labs, the others being in Lubbock, Texas and Stoneville, Mississippi.

Farmers used to have two choices for harvesting equipment, either a stripper which pulls the boll, leaves and branches off the plant or a picker which just pulls the cotton from the open bolls.  In both instances the cotton was then transferred to a big basket on wheels called a boll buggy to be hauled to the module builder.  The module builder then compressed the cotton into a 32 foot long module which sat in the field under a tarp awaiting the trip to the gin.

However, there’s a newer innovation – the picker baler which takes the place of several pieces of equipment.  Picker balers accumulate the fiber into a circular compressor right on the picker and then it is wrapped in plastic creating a round bale.  “It saves so much labor for us,” says Rod Tharp of Rod Tharp Farms.  “One person can do the job of five since we used to have the module builder operator, the employee driving the boll buggy, and the picker driver.” So not only does it reduce the amount of labor, but also the pieces of equipment needed to do the job.  

“Round bales are easier to transport as well, since 7 of them fit on a semi-trailer versus transporting one module at a time,” says Tharp. “Four round bales equal one module, so in essence you’re hauling 1 and ¾ module each time resulting in significant transportation savings.” They’re also more resistant to water damage from rain and are not prone to combustion like happens with modules as the tarps are blown around creating static electricity, resulting in fire.

Tharp said it was a good year for cotton production with an early spring, hot summer and long fall.  But not such a great year for cotton profits since he’s receiving only 60 cents per lint pound.  Craig Ogden, NMF&LB President and a cotton farmer near Loving agreed that the prices are bad, and unfortunately his harvest was not optimal.  “We’re down because of the lack of water,” he says.  “The heat was there, but we just didn’t have the irrigation water we needed to make a good crop.”