RELIABLE water supplies and large tracts of available land have enticed some of cotton’s biggest players to southern NSW as they look to expand irrigation interests in the Murrumbidgee.
Northern and western NSW growers have begun a southern migration to the Murrumbidgee, which this season will make up more than half the 48,000-hectare crop grown in southern NSW.
In December, Broken Hill-based agribusiness Tandou snapped up $33 million in land and water, purchasing half of Ravensworth Station at Hay.
Cotton processor Auscott, which has operations at Narrabri, Warren and Moree, has announced plans to grow 2500ha and build a gin at Hay, and earlier this year, Southern Ag Resources purchased Gundaline station, near Carrathool, for about $25 million.
Tandou’s acquisition of the 7450ha property, “Bundygoola”, formerly known as “South Farm”, included $24.8 million for 34,585 megalitres of water – the biggest element in the company’s decision to move east.
Tandou grows 7000ha of cotton and is preparing to plant 4000ha at “Bundygoola” for the 2014-15 cotton season.
“Our business is about water investment and maximising our return from water – cotton is one of the best ways of doing that,” said Tandou chief executive officer and managing director Guy Kingwill.
“We’ve moved from producing 45,000 bales of cotton in 2010-11 to having the capability to produce 110,000 bales.
“We can transfer water between the Murrumbidgee to Menindee, where our main operations are located, and we can use our current people and resources.”
Contour bay irrigation systems currently used for rice growing will be converted into row cropping at the 15,000ha Gundaline station.
About 1500ha of cotton is in the ground ready to be picked and 2800ha will be planted in 2014-15. The company also plans to convert 3200ha of rice country to cotton.
“There’s a large expanse of land that can be developed from rice contour bay irrigation to more efficient irrigation that can’t be done in the traditional cotton growing valleys,” said Gundaline Pty Ltd managing director farming Andrew Parkes.
Growing cotton in both the northern and southern valleys is a risk management tool for some of the bigger businesses.
“If it’s dry up north, they could have a better season in the south,” said Auscott CEO Harvey Gaynor.
Varieties bred to suit the cooler climate are expected to be released in the next five years.
Bollgard and Roundup Ready cotton technologies have made the crop possible in the south, with the latest high-yielding varieties of Sicot 74BRF and Sicot 71BRF having a broad adaptation across a range of districts.
With a cooler start and finish to the season, southern growers plant as early as possible and use growth regulators toward the end of the season to ensure the crop finishes in the shorter season.
“Fibre quality – length, strength and micronaire – has been fine down there, but because it’s a shorter season, we’re expecting yields to be less,” Mr Gaynor said.
The development of two new cotton gins, Rivcott at Carrathool and Auscott at Hay, improves key infrastructure for the southern cotton industry.
“On the world market, Australian cotton is a high quality product and it’s in demand,” said Cotton Australia CEO Adam Kay.
“While cotton’s share of the world fibre market is decreasing due to man-made fibres, it holds 30 pc of the world market for natural fibres and we’re starting to see a swing back to natural fibre.”
Tandou won’t look to expand processing operations in the Murrumbidgee, despite ginning 70,000 bales at its Broken Hill gin.
“Ginning capacity is increasing in the region given the confidence there and we intend to support those gins. We’ll focus on growing cotton and investing in water,” Mr Kingwill said.