Dryland 18-19: The year that was – and why we wish it wasn’t!

03 May, 2019


With the pickers and (largely) strippers are now rolling across the dryland cotton crop, it would be safe to assume that most growers and consultants will be happy to see the end of this season. But despite some very tough drought conditions dominating the dryland cotton landscape, there are still some lessons to be learned.

Growers have been forced to make some very difficult decisions. The February rain which “normally” gets us over the line and is the saviour of dryland cotton in other years simply didn’t materialize this year. Notoriously difficult yield estimates have been in the realm of 0.5 to 1.5 bales/ha. Most have been working off a boll factor of 20 to 30 per bale. Of the early crops being stripped, the best results were just under the 2 bale/ha mark.

Late November rain saw a large portion of the crop planted around this time, and results are a mixed bag. Anything planted into “true” dryland country – long fallow with good stubble cover – has held on remarkably well. There have even been reports of a crop going around 3 bales/ha, having not seen a drop of rain since mid-December.

With zero allocation, there was an extensive amount of irrigated country ready to go during this period, but establishment was tricky. Some took the dry-sow approach and gambled on the forecast coming through, which seems to have paid off. Those who had something to water up with took advantage of this kick start, but very dry hills saw still patchy establishment. And those who waited for the rain and went into moisture had the hardest job of all. Consecutive days of very hot winds sapped the moisture away at a rate of knots, coupled with sandblasting and many of these crops never got going.

Another opportunity was promising in December, and a smaller portion still had country to dedicate to this. These crops appeared to get off to a respectable start, but the problems came later on when fruit should have been starting to set and wasn’t. The higher temperatures in December meant that the plant architecture was developing at the other end of the bell curve for reproductive development – the plant was putting out often a dozen or more vegetative branches before fruiting. And once it did start producing squares, they struggled to hold on to a plant that may have had adequate moisture, but was being hammered in continual hot conditions and simply didn’t have the horsepower to hold on and develop this fruit. This will be one of the important lessons of the tough season – how late is too late?

Teetering on the edge of break even with yield predictions, growers have been nervous about quality discounts from potentially short staple and high micronaire. Those who made the decision to persevere rather than removing crops are looking to the skies for late rain to fill bolls and are willing to leave crops for as long as possible to maximize returns. On the positive, bolls have opened nicely to fluffy white cotton, making picking an easier job, but more growers than in any other year have made the decision to strip, which at this early point seems to have paid off.

By Alice Curkpatrick, Extension and Development Agronomist – Gwydir Valley