COTTON might require a lot more effort and expense to grow, but the gross margins make it worth every penny, according to Riverina farmer Charlie Black.
Mr Black, who farms with his parents, Robert and Shona, east of Coleambally, said they were former ricegrowers who left that industry during the Millennium drought. They first tried cotton about a decade ago, adding diversity to a corn-only summer program.
"That decision was based on money," he said. "The gross margins are there and after 10 years growing, it stacks up. It's a somewhat consistent market, riding a hell of a high at the moment. Australia only produces three per cent of the world's cotton, so local supply doesn't dictate the market compared to how it does for corn. I'd much rather be on a houseboat for a week over summer, however, the cotton won't irrigate itself. We've just got to put the work in and make money while the water's here."
I'd much rather be on a houseboat for a week over summer, however, the cotton won't irrigate itself. We've just got to put the work in and make money while the water's here.- Charlie Black, Coleambally.
The Blacks also grow irrigated wheat and canola, but aren't averse to making hard decisions when water allocations are low.
Mr Black said the main challenges were the economics of growing crops with the fluctuating opportunity cost of temporary water prices, driven by allocations.
"If we're better off selling water at $400 a megalitre, which you could do in the past droughts," he said. "At 10ML/ha in cotton, you're making $4000/ha profit without even turning the tractor on."
During the summer of 2020-21 they sold some water and grew corn, while the year before that allocations were low and they grew a smaller summer crop using bore water.
Mr Black took the opportunity during the dry times to spend eight weeks in 2019 picking in the San Joaquin Valley of California which produces 90pc of the world's Pima cotton - a longer staple, stronger fibre used for high-end clothing and bedding.
"It's finer as well, which is why there's a premium," he said. "But it's an absolute bastard to pick because the strength of it wears the componentry out and you're blocking heads constantly throughout the day."
Mr Black said the cool season and rain delays meant they were tracking several weeks later than usual and almost a third of the way through picking this year's crop.
This year's varieties were Sicot 606B3F, "a new one to the area which could be promising", Sicot 746B3F and Sicot 714B3F.
"I'm not going to count my eggs until the cotton is ginned," he said. "But it looks like we're going all right off module counts and I'm hearing yields in the area so far of 10-13 bales of ginned cotton. It's looking exciting and offers potential for the season to gin out pretty well."
Preparation for planting cotton is an almost year-long process. The ground is deep ripped, offset disced and grader boarded, followed by a laser bucket and grader board to smooth it out. Lime, gypsum and chicken manure are applied, and the hills are pulled up once or twice.
Monoammonium phosphate and urea are spread across the field and worked in to consolidate "a nice fine seed bed". Fields are rolled once or twice and some are prewatered to encourage faster germination.
Using a John Deere 1705 precision planter configured on 36 inch row spacings (90cm), seed was planted from early October after a wet, cold spell at 160,000 seeds per hectare with the liquid fertiliser Flowphos 13Z and Thimet to keep thrips at bay.
A post-sowing pre-emergence spray of pendimethalin, dimethoate, diuron and paraquat managed early weeds, while Roundup was applied twice - once by plane - throughout the season ahead of canopy closure.
The crop was irrigated eight times and consumed an average of 7.5ML/ha, as much as 4ML less than usual because of the wet summer.
The plant regulator Pix was applied several times from late December to mid-January to encourage the crop to produce fruit instead of vegetation, along with insecticides mainly targeting mirids.
The last step was three defoliant sprays: Escalate and Promote to encourage boll opening and leaf drop, and Dropp Ultra Max to terminate plant growth. A John Deere CP690 picker is being used to harvest the cotton and the round modules will be sent to the Southern Cotton gin at Whitton.
This year's winter crops will be Beckom wheat and HyTTec Trifecta canola, and the Blacks will bulk up seed for a new mid-maturity wheat variety, AGT Boree.
Mr Black said it was an exciting time to be growing irrigated crops, even with higher input prices.
"There's plenty of water about," he said. "The dams are full and temporary water's cheap going into the next water year. It's a blessing commodity prices have gone up too, or it would be a different story."