New growers rush to join cotton’s 4m bale bounce back
First time dryland cotton growers are lining up in droves to join the fibre crop’s rebounding fortunes after an unusually wet winter and spring sets the scene for a 4 million bale crop.
Cotton Australia is tipping a total planting area of up to 520,000 hectares this summer.
That’s at least double the 220,000ha grown in 2015-16 after a run of dry seasons and irrigation water shortages slashed production more than 50 per cent on the prior year.
Apart from a big resurgence in irrigated crop confidence in central and northern NSW and much improved prospects in Queensland, this year’s good soil moisture levels have also prompted unprecedented interest in rain-grown (dryland) crops.
Cotton Australia chief executive officer, Adam Kay, said about 80 dryland growers who had apparently never planted cotton before were joining Australia’s relatively select band of 1500 corporate and family fibre crop producers this year.
Full soil moisture profiles across NSW and parts of southern Queensland, greater row width options on modern harvesting machinery and Monsanto’s new Bollgard 3 pest resistant cotton variety had opened big prospects for rain-grown production.
Some of this year’s first time growers are planting into paddocks which got too wet and saw winter crops drown or sprayed out last month.
Others are planting cotton in country which otherwise would have grown sorghum if feed grain prices were more attractive.
Mr Kay said the new Bollgard genetically modified seed line would eliminate the need for deep post harvest cultivation (pupae busting) in many cotton crops – depending on how late they were picked – and require reduced planting areas of cotton and pigeon peas as beneficial insect refuges.
Breeding up beneficial insects keeps major pests such as heliothis caterpillars, and pesticide resistance risks, in check.
With markets still paying above the all-important $500 a bale profitability mark and irrigated Australian crops now averaging a world-leading 11 bales/ha, Mr Kay said there was a lot of incentive to grow cotton.
After deducting growing costs averaging about $4000/ha, a forward sold average irrigated crop would reap about $1500/ha profit.
“The record wet winter hasn’t been such a good thing for farms in flooded areas, but it’s been fantastic for cotton industry confidence as storages fill and overflow, particularly in NSW,” he told a Farm Writers Association of NSW lunch on Friday.
“Four months ago the Macquarie Valley system had just 10pc volume in its main storage, Burrendong Dam - now it’s 130pc full and they can’t get water out of it fast enough.
“That means growers in the Macquarie now have certainty of crop production and can sell into forward markets for the next two to three years.
“It’s a similar story in other valleys.”
About 320,000ha of irrigated crop was anticipated this season and up to 200,000ha of dryland plantings.
Potential for a surge in southern Queensland dryland plantings also exists if a decent rain event occurs on the Darling Downs in the next month.
While too much rain, floodwater and cool temperatures had put the brakes on the booming southern NSW cotton industry’s expansion this season, he said the Murray and Murrumbidgee crop would probably still plant much more than half last year’s cotton area, as farmers tried their luck and pushed sowing dates as late as early November.
Backed by four ginning operations, the southern NSW crop yielded 600,000 bales in 2015.
In coming seasons it would creep deeper south and west of Berrigan along the Murray River, and continue spilling into northern Victoria.
Cotton had provided an attractive summer crop alternative in the south, but growers still had the valuable option to plant rice or corn if markets or planting conditions were more conducive - which may be the case this year.
Mr Kay said southern irrigators had been pleased to try new precision planting ideas and adopt plant breeding and agronomic research from an Australian industry with a global reputation for production efficiency because it gave them more cropping income choices.
“And in years like this when cotton’s planting window hasn’t been so good and is now closing, they can still plant rice well into November,” he said.
“It’s not a cotton versus rice versus corn or sorghum situation – it’s all about having more opportunities to choose from.”