Cotton yields reflect dry

Tough season galvanises belief in best crop for western summers

Trini and Jock Coupland, Wardry, Condobolin, check sicot 748B3F variety cotton being picked. Photo: Rachael Webb

Trini and Jock Coupland, Wardry, Condobolin, check sicot 748B3F variety cotton being picked. Photo: Rachael Webb


A brutal season for heat and price of water has cut cotton production by half compared to last year but stoic growers remain convinced that the tough annual is the best option for irrigators


It has been a hard season for those in cotton, with a hot and dry summer. While prices north of $550 a bale had the potential to make it pay, the cruelling factor was the rising price of water on the open market during the final weeks before harvest.

For some, according to Macquarie Cotton Growers' Association president Sinclair Steele, Warren, there was the double whammy of a financial "washout", as forward sold contracts unable to be filled at home had to be bought out at prices $50 to a $100 more than when they were locked in.

The fact there was any thing to gin at all reflected the resilience of family enterprise in the irrigation sector, he said, who have learned to work with an allocation of water four years out of every 10.

Roger Commins, Southern Cotton at Whitton, said growers planted on the assumption they would receive 20 to 30 per cent of their water allocation this year, but in the end received 7pc allocation and either bought a lot or ran short, hence the reason why crops failed to meet contracts.

He said cotton typically commands four megalitres a hectare, or half that in a wet year.

In the Murrumbidgee, Mr Commins expects a decline of 200,000 tonnes from last year's production of 750,000t, while on-farm he sees a reasonable yield of 10 to 11 round bales a hectare from irrigated paddocks sown back to back with cotton while fallow country is yielding 11-14b/ha.

Those who forstalled final waterings, as the price of market allocation pushed water north of $550 a megalitre, realised tighter returns at 7-9 b/ha.

This year was a worst-case scenario and as the sun baked the earth in January and February the whole season grew tighter, with growers paying $200-250/ML more for water than last year.

This financial burden added heavily to the typical cost of growing the crop - about $4000/ha based on a 12b/ha harvest.

"We're fortunate the price for cotton is up around $550 a bale, but when you get, say $6600/ha for your lint cotton and another $1000 for seed and take out growing costs and start buying water at $600/ML that eats right into things. You end up with a pretty skinny margin.

"If you decided not to water towards the finish and ended up with 9b/ha you will end up with not much margin at all. "

As crops move from the paddock to the gin, growers are getting some insight into whether that last watering paid off, or not, in the face of high water prices. Reports are that early indications of crop quality is good, despite late rain in the south.

Cotton Australia policy officer Paul Sloman said the north of the state dealt differently with the season, and irrigated paddocks were the only winners. Dryland cotton failed as skies remained blue.

"In some places this was the third or fourth year with no in-crop rain. In spite of that, yields have not been bad with 10-14b/ha," he said.

Mr Sloman noted modern methods, like dropping out every third row helped to reduce water consumption as well as allow plants to expand into that empty space, resulted in smarter use of resources while making more money out of each megalitre.

This year Condobolin cotton grower, Jock Coupland, said variability in seasonal conditions were reflected at harvest, with seven to 14 bales a hectare recorded.

"Getting a crop depended on soil type, compaction rates and timing or irrigation," he said.

"It was not a forgiving season. We would call this a learning year. We're going to have plenty of things to talk about after it's all over."

While the growing season was punishing in terms of heat and water availability, pest pressure was low and crop quality good.

"Our conventional cotton planted in refuge rows as dictated by our licence are normally annihilated, but in the dry weather they weren't too bad."

Next season will be different, with no expectation of allocation and with cotton being expensive to plant there will be few willing to take the risk. Yet, one must be always ready.

Mr Coupland (also on our cover with wife Trini) will have paddocks prepared and ready to plant in case winter rainfall results in another October release from Burrendong dam.

Forbes agronomist Guy Webb says one way to help beat the heat of summer is to ameliorate soil with compost and he advocates he use of "hu-poo".

This is a mix of 75pc green waste and 25pc biosolids, already sterilised at a Sydney treatment plant before being composted at 60-70 degrees, which further kills pathogens.

He says the product can be spread for $60/t and provides twice the dollar value in terms of nutritional input.

Mr Webb applies the compost at a minimum of 4t/ha and up to 10t/ha which should last three to five years.

At an annual cost comparison with 100kg/ha of monoammonium phosphate the compost costs about $10/ha more, but introduces carbon and encourages soil biology which helps retain water - a factor evident during last January when temperatures were five degrees above average.

"We found the compost added buffering to crops which did not drop their squares during that heat and delivered an extra bale per hectare where the higher compost rate of 10t/ha was applied," said Mr Webb.

NSW cotton growers are pointing to the success of the 2018-19 season, despite the odds, as proof the annual crop has what it takes to generate income for western communities through this period of change.

If it's not cotton, they say, then it will be some other high value crop, none of which presently pay as well and will likely result in less profit flowing into rural communities.

It was not a forgiving season. We would call this a learning year. - Jock Coupland, Condobolin


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