A lifetime of change

Retiring agronomist relives a lifetime of change within the northern cotton industry


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In 43 years working as an agronomist in cotton, Dave Anthony of Auscott has seen a lifetime of revolutionary change - all of it for the better

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Retiring Auscott agronomist Dave Anthony has lived through a remarkable era in the cotton industry.

Retiring Auscott agronomist Dave Anthony has lived through a remarkable era in the cotton industry.

When David Anthony came to cotton in 1975 he was fresh out of university, having studied agronomy, and took a lecturer’s advice to do some work in the agriculture sector for a year before returning to do a PhD.

With cadetships in the Department of Agriculture unavailable at the time he took up a job selling chemicals with Lanes based at Moree at a time when no cotton had yet been grown on the Gwyder.

It was the completion of Copeton Dam that same year that allowed the allocation of water and from that point the crop area grew rapidly, with Peter Glennie and Peter Gregg Senior taking the first punt - planting in 1976.

Working for Lanes, which supplied pesticides to Auscott at Narrabri, Mr Anthony checked Auscott cotton fields for insect pests, providing reports to the agronomists and farm manager.

“The work was practical with a lot of science in cotton production and it really attracted me,” recalled Mr Anthony who retired from Auscott after 42 years last December and was sent off by growers with a fond farewell dinner at both Moree and Wee Waa only last week.

It wasn’t long after his field experience at Narrabri that a youthful Mr Anthony, approached manager for Auscott Narrabri at that time, Dick Browne, letting him know that he was interested in working for Auscott should an agronomy job become available. His enquiry proved successful starting at Auscott Warren in April 1977 as an agronomist working for Neil Sowerby.

Here the cotton crop was short with lower yield compared to cotton crops at Narrabri. Nutrient spray trials were showing no growth response. At that time a Californian professor of Soil Science named Jim Brownell from Fresno State University came to Australia to do a sabbatical with Auscott. Mr Anthony’s favourite subject at University was soil science and so the two formed a great partnership. Professor Brownell shared his extensive knowledge of soil and structure. Mr Anthony was fascinated. It turned out the deep, heavy clay vertisols, which are a feature of much of the Australian cotton industry, had developed a compacted soil structure under the heavy equipment and farming systems being used at the time.

“The late 1960s and 1970s were a wetter phase in the climate and so we gained a lot from working with Professor Brownell,” he said. Mr Anthony advocates that the best outcomes derive from researchers and industry working together on issues, with the cotton industry well known for its appreciate of research and development.

Cotton as an industry has explored many new innovations since Dave Anthony came onboard as an agronomist in 1975.

Cotton as an industry has explored many new innovations since Dave Anthony came onboard as an agronomist in 1975.

To maintain good physical structure vertisols need to be allowed to go through wetting and drying cycles in the farming system which cause swelling and shrinking processes that help break up compaction. This is known as “biological ripping”. To do that Auscott was advised to plant safflower in rotation with cotton, to dry out the soil to depth before breaking it up with heavy tillage.

This was before Global Positioning Systems but controlled traffic played its part, with producers pegging out the first run of the seed bed hilling operation so that wheel tracks married up with the wheel tracks of the previous crop - as best they could.

Improved equipment design soon evolved to meet these new regimes, with the old style of more upright tynes failing to do the job without more and more horsepower. An engineer named Jim Smith helped redesign the equipment, applying tougher steel and leading points angled to achieve an approach of 22 to 25 degrees.

Mr Anthony worked with Department of Agriculture agronomists like David McKenzie at Trangie using the “biological ripping” approach to compaction busting, where, after drying by safflower and also unirrigated wheat, rain or the next irrigation expanded the soil leading to a friable structure.

The materials handling revolution was no less sensational during those early years, when growers were dependent on trailers at harvest to transport cotton from the field to the gin. If the cotton gin broke down harvest had to stop as trailers were not being emptied. An Auscott manager came up with the idea of dumping cotton on the ground and covering with plastic sheeting, rather than stop harvesting. 

The adoption of US style modules with Australian improvements during 1978-'79 occurred almost overnight and streamlined the harvest process.

Suddenly cotton could be tightly packed in-field into rectangular blocks the size of a semi-trailer to be loaded onto trucks with a simple chain bed.

This transport breakthrough not only overcame the trailer shortages at harvest, but allowed the crop to be grown hundred of kilometres further away from a gin. The industry was suddenly in expansion mode.

The materials handling revolution was no less sensational during those early years

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