Changes in the Australian cotton industry

15 April, 2018

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As someone who has been out of the direct cotton industry for several years it has been very interesting returning to work directly in cotton again. There have been several major changes and the increased use of technology has been noticeable. This reflects agriculture in general but cotton is at the cutting edge using technology and research to increase production and quality.

A lot has changed but a lot has stayed the same.

It is good to see the number of younger people involved now. These are people working as both cotton industry support, and as growers. The average age of an Australian cotton grower is reported to be 39 years old; this is in contrast to the wider farming group where the average age is 55 and getting older. The demographics are opposite to each other.

Some changes include:

Varieties – cotton cultivars have changed over the years. Each variety brings improvements in yield, fibre quality and disease resistance. With yields of up to 15 plus bales per hectare being achieved now, the cotton breeding program is on the right track. Varieties, combined with better management and attention to detail have been part of this ongoing yield increase plane. Regional adaption and with the ability to be grown in diverse areas is one of the keys to the success of Australian cotton varieties.

There are always seasonal factors that we must contend with and these can have large influences on final yields and even fibre quality.

Traits – Bollgard® 3 with three proteins for Helicoverpa control really is game changing technology. Growers, consultants and agronomists can focus more on control of secondary pests and getting irrigation and nutrition needs right now. Gone are the days of bug checking crops every two days and constantly booking in sprays to try control egg lays from the previous night’s moth activity and surviving larvae present in the crops. Timely and accurate bug checking is still a very important part of successful cotton growing but the focus can now be on other agronomic areas. Wider planting provide growers with a greater opportunity to make the most of good planting conditions.

Roundup Ready Flex® cotton is also a major breakthrough. It is helping to make cotton production easier but we must all do what we can to preserve the technology. The glyphosate molecule is under pressure from our farming systems and how we use it. Integrated Weed Management is the key to stopping problem weeds from germinating and setting seeds. Future herbicide traits have the potential to extend the life of glyphosate into the future. We need to keep herbicides effective in our farming systems.

Round bale pickers – these are a massive improvement on basket pickers, boll buggies and module builders. Efficiency, safety and farm cleanliness have all been enhanced.

Expansion into new areas – it has been interesting hearing about and now seeing the expansion of cotton into southern NSW and even Victoria, as well as areas such as Dunedoo and Geurie in the Macquarie Valley. Recent expansion into Northern Queensland and cotton now back in the Ord region shows the potential for increases in area and production.

Recent field days have attracted the interest of many potential new growers. This expansion can only continue and the cotton industry is excellent at providing support and openly sharing information to help new growers be successful.

Herbicide damage – Despite the ongoing education program around the dangers of spray drift, the incidents continue to occur. Cotton is part of the wider agricultural industry and we are all in it together, so we must continue to educate and train pesticide applicators about spray drift and inversion dangers. A recent education and training push in the Macquarie Valley by a concerned group of industry people have had over 300 people attend a series of workshops about the dangers of spray drift and how to notice inversion conditions. These workshops are continuing.

Despite this, the Australian cotton industry is in good shape and the future looks very bright.

By Craig McDonald, Extension & Development Agronomist – Central NSW