Picking Ornamental Cotton – How Do You Harvest Homegrown Cotton

By: Amy Grant

Many people are trying their hand at growing crops that are traditionally grown by commercial farmers. One such crop is cotton. While commercial cotton crops are harvested by mechanical harvesters, harvesting cotton by hand is the more logical and economical course of action for the small home grower. Of course, you need to know not only about picking ornamental cotton but when to harvest your homegrown cotton. Read on to find out about cotton harvest time.

Cotton Harvest Time

Try some of the “old-time” homestead crops our ancestors used to grow. Gardeners growing small plots of cotton today may be interested in learning not only about picking ornamental cotton, but in carding, spinning and dying their own fibers. Maybe they’re doing it for fun or are interested in creating an organic product from start to finish.

Whatever the reason, harvesting cotton by hand requires some good old-fashioned, back breaking, sweating type of work. Or at least that’s what I’ve been led to believe after reading accounts of actual cotton pickers who put in 12-15 hour days in 110 F. (43 C.) heat, dragging a bag weighing 60-70 pounds (27-31 kg.) – some even more than that.

Since we are of the 21st century and used to every convenience, I’m guessing no one is going to try to break any records, or their backs. Still, there is some work involved when picking cotton.

When to Harvest Cotton

Cotton harvesting starts in July in the southern states and may extend into November in the north and will be ready to harvest over time for about 6 weeks. You will know when the cotton is ready to be picked when the bolls crack open and the fluffy white cotton is exposed.

Before you begin to harvest your homegrown cotton, arm yourself appropriately with a thick pair of gloves. The cotton bolls are sharp and likely to shred tender skin.

To pick the cotton from the bolls, simply grasp the cotton ball at the base and twist it out of the boll. As you pick, crop the cotton into a bag as you go. Cotton isn’t ready to harvest all at one time, so leave any cotton that isn’t ready to harvest for another day.

Once you have harvested all the mature cotton, spread it out in a cool, dark area with plenty of air circulation to dry. Once the cotton is dry, separate the cotton seeds from the cotton by hand. Now you’re ready to use your cotton. It can be used to stuff pillows or toys, or dyed and carded and spun into fiber ready to weave. You can also replant the seeds for another harvest.

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What Type of Plant Is Cotton?

Cotton is both a wild plant and a plant that has been hybridized for commercial purposes. While there are several species of wild cotton, the most common species used commercially is Gossypium hirsutum, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is the species that has been bred to be disease-resistant and is responsible for almost 90 percent of the world's cotton production. G. hirsutum is also called "American upland cotton."

How to Reduce Fire Risks at Harvest Time

By Jim Steadman | August 28, 2020

During cotton harvest, environmental conditions play a huge role in determining how smoothly picking or stripping will go following defoliation. Is the weather sunny, dry and warm, or overcast and damp? Is it windy or just breezy? And, how have growing conditions as the crop finished out impacted fiber characteristics?

The last point is important, especially in seasons with low micronaire cotton and excessively dry weather at harvest. Those two points led to an abundance of cotton harvester fires over the past several years. But even under normal conditions, the risk of harvester fires is ever present.

In a blog post, staff at Janeka Insurance Agency in Victoria, TX, notes, “Regardless of the reasons, the fact is that a fire in the field can cause significant damage and often a total loss to equipment. The fire cannot always be avoided, but with an installed fire suppression system, the equipment damage can be greatly reduced or avoided altogether. That is why some insurance companies have created the underwriting requirement that this after-market system be installed.

“Besides the protection of property, the risk to life can be protected by detection and suppression equipment.”

Several aftermarket fire suppression systems for the John Deere module building picker and stripper are available, as well as newer non-corrosive extinguishers for farm and cotton gin use. The cost of these systems is relatively nominal when compared to the value of the equipment, potential downtime and extra expense in locating rental equipment replacement, and the cost of insurance and deductible.

Reducing Fire Risks

It’s often said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – especially when it comes to specialized farming equipment like pickers and combines. Here are some reminders and tips to help protect equipment before harvest begins:

  • Keep up with regular machine maintenance. Inspect bearings daily and replace them if you see signs of overheating or excessive looseness.
  • Be alert for rocks, wood or debris that can lodge in the picking units and cause sparks.
  • Repair leaks and clean up all fuel and oil spills before cotton lint or trash can mix in. Those mixtures are combustible and hard to control if ignited.
  • Clean the machine completely twice a day during harvest. Be sure to check and clean out of sight areas like under the engine compartment, under the accumulator and under the conveyor belt.
  • Check all fire extinguishers and fire equipment on the machine to make sure they are charged and ready for use and replace them if they’re not. Be familiar with the chassis fire extinguisher port location.
  • Do not unload near electrical wires.
  • Do not refuel with the engine running, while smoking or around an open flame.
  • Do not use flammable petroleum wetting agents in the moistener system.
  • Be aware of wind conditions and direction. Fires are more likely in dry conditions with high winds.
  • In the event of a fire, pull straight into the wind so it blows in the face of the driver and keeps smoke and flames away from the cab.


Cotton classing sorts the fibre into different quality-based grades. The better the fibre quality, the higher the grade and the more the grower is paid for the cotton.

Growers rotate crops (such as faba beans, chickpeas, maize and wheat), which helps to minimise pests and diseases, reduce pesticide use, retain soil moisture levels, build and maintain healthy soils, and better manage soil nutrients. Some growers graze livestock over winter.

Growers make improvements and carry out maintenance on-farm to prepare for next season.

Growers also start marketing their next season's production. Growers can forward-sell crops up to three years in advance to take advantage of good prices.

© 2020 Cotton Australia. All rights reserved.

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