CARNEGIE — If you have noticed more cotton fields around Southwest Oklahoma, you won't be surprised that cotton is now preferred by more farmers in this region.

And, much of that cotton is dryland, where the crop has long been at the mercy of Mother Nature to provide the needed rain at opportune times.

Growers around Southwest Oklahoma have seen cotton from both sides, growing dryland and irrigated cotton.

Management of the Carnegie Farmer’s Cooperative along with area farmers saw a need for increased ginning capacity, assembled a plan and started to explore the idea. The board of directors scouted around to see if anyone was wanting to sell an operating gin.

They found one in North Carolina that had been used very little. That was in 2017. The gin started operating in 2018 and now the facility is operating full speed at a site 4 miles north of Carnegie and turning out around 100,000 bales each season.

“When we found that gin, we took it to the board and they were very receptive,” Carnegie Coop General Manager Tom Steinmetz said. “We sold preferred stock for about $800,000 and that helped get the project funded. The thing that made this project work is we have a very diverse and engaged group of farmers. By being a diverse cooperative, we are stronger and take advantage of opportunities like this one.”

“The tests have shown that the cotton from our region is among the best according to Allenberg Cotton Company, which is one of the largest cotton buyers in the United States. When he says that, it means something in this business,” Steinmetz said.

The new gin in Carnegie makes tracking its cotton much easier with a system that prints out tags with all the information needed to track and grade it.

“The grading process is very important,” Carnegie Gin Manager Brandon Covington said. “That machine prints out two tags with the same information such as farmer’s name, date, where it was grown and one tag goes with the sample and the other goes on the bale. The samples go to the USDA which checks every bale for how clean it is, the grade and other information that will help the farmers make good decisions in the future.”

The Carnegie gin has a large area where the bales or modules are stored where ginning starts with the cotton placed in a huge trough. Then the cotton goes across a conveyor belt where it is heated and cleaned then sent up to where it enters the four gin stands.

“The heating helps with the actual ginning process,” Covington said. “It just helps get the cotton cleaner. One thing we have noticed is that the newer round balers do a better job of cleaning the cotton in the field, which makes ginning easier.”

So, how has dryland cotton emerged as a profitable crop when years ago it was a very small part of the overall production?

“Cotton seed companies have done so much work on cotton genetics over the years and been making cotton more drought resistance, bug resistant and herbicide tolerant, and all those genetic enhancements have helped the farmers turn dryland cotton into a profitable crop,” board member and area farmer Barry Squires said. “A few years ago, we had in excess of 2-bale-an-acre dryland cotton and in that year, we did get the rain at the right times. However, those genetic enhancements were the key to our success. In normal years we’ve been producing more than 1-bale-per-acre with average rainfall.”

The Carnegie Gin is constantly making improvements. Recently the Cooperative added another gin stand, raising the total to four units for Covington and his crew of 11 per shift to oversee.

“In addition to the lint, the cotton seed is a valuable commodity," Steinmetz said. "In years past it was crushed for oil. Now it is mostly fed to dairy cattle. Carnegie, like the other gin, ships their cotton seed to dozens of dairy farms throughout the United States.”

The cooperatives send their own trucks out to pick up the bales and bring them to the gin.

“That’s just another service we offer to get them to use our gin,” Steinmetz said of the hauling service. “We also get some revenue when our farmers purchase diesel fuel from us, so you can see how all this works together to benefit the cooperative and the farmers.”

And much like cooperatives do with wheat delivered to their elevators, those who bring their cotton to the various gins around the region most often get dividend payments depending on the amount they had ginned and the quality.