Improving Cotton Picker Harvesting Efficiency with Precision Row Units

Cotton harvesting mechanization has progressed over the years, but there remains room for improvement. Frequent harvesting will reduce the time lower-positioned bolls are exposed to weather conditions that limit lint yield.

Instead of trading for a new planter, farmers can save money by retrofitting their existing equipment with Precision Planting’s Ready Row Units. These accessories will improve singulation, population, spacing, and uniform emergence.

Variable-Row-Spacing (VRS)

Cotton farmers face a lot of pressure to produce high-quality cotton that meets the textile industry’s standards. Consequently, there has been increased interest in improving the efficiency of cotton pickers to reduce impurities and harvesting costs. However, it is difficult to quantify the impact of different machine parameters on harvesting efficiency. This paper examines how the presence or absence of scraping plates and variations in travel speed affect the quantity of impurities in the harvested fibers. Experiments were conducted over two harvest seasons in Mato Grosso, Brazil. The experiments were designed using a 2 3 factorial design, with three variations of each treatment: the presence or absence of scraping plates and three speeds of travel.

The results show that the scraping plate significantly reduced the number of impurities in the cotton, and this effect was more pronounced at the highest speed. In addition, higher fuel consumption and a lower picking efficiency were observed when the scraping plate was in place. The results suggest that the removal of the scraping plate could improve the overall efficiency of the picker.

John Deere recently unveiled a variable-row-spacing picker at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences. The new picker has the ability to harvest 15-inch rows and is designed for easy maintenance and serviceability. Typically, ultra-narrow-row cotton is harvested with stripper harvesters that can have issues in the field because of the large amount of trash they generate. The new picker can eliminate some of this waste and allow growers to realize higher returns on their 15-inch acreage.

Stalk Lifter Rods and Guides

A cotton picker’s row units are critical for harvesting efficiency. They lift and transport stalks between the feeder belt and the drums, where they become sorted into bolls. To maintain maximum efficiency, check all row unit components regularly to ensure they are in good condition.

Stalk lifter rods should have smooth, free movement in the mounts that hold them. If a rod has been damaged, replace it or re-shape the end. The rod diameter should be the largest possible for clearance within the mountings. A smaller diameter could cause excessive wear and shorten the life of the rod.

Row-unit guides are a critical component of the picker’s performance and durability. They control the position of the picking blades and help keep them centered over the stalks as they are lifted and transported. Damaged or missing rods can allow the picking blades to drift off center and disrupt the separating process.

Guides also reduce row-unit mud and debris buildup and improve the ability of the row units to transfer seed cotton to the conveyors. Check and adjust guides regularly to minimize mud and debris accumulation.

Maintain proper doffer-column height to enhance rib-to-bar contact and maintain accurate bar positioning in relation to the row-unit ribs. Follow the operator’s manual for doffer-column adjustment instructions.

Regularly clean the doffer columns to prevent trash and debris buildup that may contribute to conveying chokes in the front drums. Check the compressor door hinges to be sure they move smoothly without dragging on the row unit frame.

Air-conveyor systems require a high velocity of air, usually about 5,000 cubic feet per minute, at the midpoint between the doffer column and the cotton discharge. A duct air flow rate higher than that can increase power consumption, which reduces the picking capacity and speed of the machine.

Camera Observation System

The camera observation system is a method of monitoring and controlling the movements of the cotton picker. It uses a camera to identify crop plants and provides navigation parameters such as the heading angle and offset for row guidance. It has been shown to be effective in guiding the cotton picker along a desired path with centimeter accuracy. However, several factors affect the accuracy of the camera. These include a rough field, man-made measurement error, and wheel sideslip due to soft and moist soil.

A new cotton picker was introduced by John Deere in 2021, and it is expected to help farmers harvest more acres per hour than the previous models. This new machine uses a 13.6 L PowerTech engine and is designed to reduce maintenance requirements and fuel consumption. It also includes an advanced suspension system to increase ride quality.

It is important that the row-unit spacing matches the planter spacing for the cotton crop being harvested. Otherwise, the picker may lose cotton at places where rows from different planter passes diverge. This is especially true for cotton planted with variable-row spacing, which will result in uneven spaces between the rows.

KE Precision Ag is introducing two new tools for no-tillers to improve planter performance this year, including the FurrowForce closing-wheel system and SmartDepth adjustable row unit technology. The company is demonstrating these technologies at its 2019 Winter Conference in Tremont, Illinois. The tools will give growers more flexibility to make adjustments to their planters on the fly. They will also allow them to monitor their performance from a tablet. In addition, they will be compatible with a wide range of brands of planters.

Mud Scrapers

Despite the many advancements in cotton production, harvesting remains a manual process, with laborers working in rows to identify bolls and manually pick them. Automated systems have been used in weed control and fruit and vegetable harvesting with significant benefits, but there are still opportunities for increasing automation in cotton.

Research shows that the efficiency of a mechanical harvester depends on the size, kind, and nature of the plant. In addition, harvesters need to be able to collect high-yielding cotton with minimal material damage. This is a challenging goal for any machine, but especially so for mechanical harvesters.

While there are many variations of cotton picker equipment, most rely on a combination of spindles or fingers and a pneumatic system to pluck open bolls from the plant and carry them to the gin. The type of spindle, finger, or prongs a machine uses can significantly impact yield. For example, spindles are more efficient than brushes.

Unlike strippers, which remove both opened and unopened bolls from the plant, cotton pickers are selective and gather only the cotton that is ready for harvest. This is important because early opening bolls may not fluff out, causing them to be discarded and reduce yield [48].

The ability of a robotic harvester to quickly and easily identify and separate cotton from foreign material is an essential element of improving yield. Currently, this capability relies on high-resolution unpiloted aerial system (UAS) imagery to detect plastic and other contaminants that are often present in the field. With advances in machine vision tools, there is a good chance that this technology will be available in the near future to enable frequent robotic harvesting of cotton.


The advancement of mechanization in cotton production processes has, could, or will impact the way cotton is grown. From soil preparation and planting, within season management, to harvesting and ginning, current and future opportunities exist for increasing automation in the cotton production process.

In the past, cotton was harvested by hand, resulting in heavy labor demands for field workers. In the 1950s, the first mechanical cotton picker was introduced, significantly reducing physical labor requirements. Later, the cab of the cotton picker was altered to improve worker comfort and safety. This allowed the machine to run faster, boosting its efficiency even further.

Unlike strippers, which remove both opened and unopened bolls from the plant, the mechanical cotton picker is selective in its operation and collects only open cotton seeds. Research shows that picking efficiency is primarily influenced by the plant’s size, kind, and nature rather than by yield. This means that a mechanical picker can harvest high-yielding plants equally as well as low-yielding ones.

To maximize cotton-picking efficiency, a pneumatic picker should have the following attributes: a nozzle with a small opening for delicately collecting the seeds, a cyclone separator designed for this purpose, and an aspirator with a specified air flow rate and collection drum capacity. The optimal design for these components has been determined through a build-and-test procedure. Changing these variables directly affects the pressure, which is a key factor in picker efficiency.

A new, autonomous, mechanical cotton picker has been developed that combines motion control with machine vision and image processing. It can detect cotton with a frame grabber that operates, gathers, and processes images to identify the seed cotton size and other quality traits. The information is used to trigger a manipulator arm to complete the cotton-picking operation close to the plant.