Tough times may push gin technology faster than ever. Process-control ginning uses computers to kick stick machines, lint cleaners, dryers and other machines on and off as cotton goes through the gin. As it does, turnout increases and grades meet market demands, helping it catch on even as cotton markets drag bottom.

The U.S. Cotton Ginning Laboratory, Stoneville, MS, first tested process control at Westlake Gin, Stratford, CA, in 1992. Testing was expanded to Servico Gin, Courtland, AL, in 1994. This year, the new technology is running on 17 gins, an increase of nine from 1998.

Joe Yankey, product marketing manager for Zellweger Uster, the Knoxville, TN-based company marketing it as IntelliGin, is surprised at the positive response this season.

"Because of the low cotton prices, I was expecting some negativity from the producer side. But it turns out farmers are looking for anything that'll make them another dollar," says Yankey.

"It may be the difference between being able or unable to survive to farm another year," says Stanley Anthony, USDA ag engineer credited with inventing the process-control technology at his Stoneville lab.

"It can help the producer avoid the loss of 20-30 lbs/bale, and that makes a difference. It's way more than enough to offset the cost."

Anthony says it helps farmers respond rapidly to market prices and special conditions like the short staple that many experienced this year. Farmers no longer have to live with one yearly decision about ginning, since the computer takes the need to maintain staple length into consideration if it's reflected in the price. Farmers can also specify different market prices for different modules and "prescription process" every module to optimize profits.

"We know it helped our farmers and gin last year," Bobby Crutchfield, Coffee Gin, Enterprise, AL, says.

"We did a pretty intensive comparison with the year before on turnouts and gas used.

"That was on a bad crop," Crutchfield continues. "A good crop might show better results. We were able to run 90% of the time without a stick machine and with one lint cleaner. It upped turnout considerably. The level of motes is down drastically. It's putting more lint in for farmers."

Harvest conditions heavily impact IntelliGin's turnout increases. Oddly enough, the trashier the cotton, the more improvement farmers may see.

"In 1998, a hurricane went through south Alabama," says Yankey. "Those guys had very trashy cotton and IntelliGin helped them a lot, with around 30 lbs/bale additional turnout. Eastern North Carolina in 1998 had perfect picking conditions, and those farmers struggled to get 7 or 8 lbs of extra turnout with it.

"So harvest weather and how well the cotton is defoliated have a big impact," he adds. "We were surprised by how much variability there was."

Researchers are finding better ways to gin narrow-row stripper-picked cotton.

"We've made recommendations to Zellweger Uster on how to deal with that as we're developing new algorithms for the gin machines," says Anthony. "Once the cotton gets out of the gin stand, there's essentially no difference between stripper- and spindle-harvested cotton except for bark."

Problems with stripper cotton have come about because of the inability to predict bark, he says.

"We're going to be using new technology to try to predict in the gin whether a sample will be called barky or not." In addition, there'll soon be improved camera technology allowing the system to do a better job of measuring color and trash.