While Australia’s traditional cotton growing regions struggle to get any of the crop planted due to drought, a slumping sugar price and demand for reliable irrigation areas for the fibre is spurring new interest in growing it in the tropics.

Key points:

  • Burdekin farmers have harvested the first local cotton since 2012
  • Ongoing dry weather is providing opportunities and keeping the seed price up
  • Central Queensland farmers expect a much smaller crop this year

Crops in the Burdekin, Atherton Tablelands, and Gilbert River regions could one day offset smaller plantings in drought-stricken southern Australia.

But while a price premium is proving lucrative for growers, a heavy 2019 wet season means many crops performed below their potential.

Burdekin district agronomist Simon Dunlop said 800 millimetres of rainfall on juvenile plants in February reduced yields.

“It’s quite pleasing to get to this stage. We had a whole lot of rain in the first two weeks and we really didn’t think we’d get to this stage,” he said.

Irrigated crops at Clare, 100 kilometres south of Townsville, yielded at seven to eight bales per hectare.

Transport factors into costs

It is the first time the genetically-modified Bollgard 3 breed has been grown in the north Queensland district and the first local cotton crop since 2012.

“You’re always learning things. If we can get a yield as we have in such a difficult season, it has a lot of potential going forward,” Mr Dunlop said.

“You’re always learning things. If we can get a yield as we have in such a difficult season, it has a lot of potential going forward,” Mr Dunlop said.

“We probably need to grow about five per hectare to break even.

“If we can get a yield as we have in such a difficult season it has a lot of potential going forward.”

While transport to the gin at Emerald, 700 kilometres away, factored into costs, Mr Dunlop said the ongoing dry weather provided other opportunities.

“Due to the drought in New South Wales, it’s really holding the seed price up, making cotton here more attractive,” he said.

“Normally seed covers your ginning costs, but it might even cover your transport costs this year.”

Greatly reduced crop being planted in central Queensland

Central Queensland farmers have grown almost 20,000 hectares of irrigated cotton in a good season.

But, with Emerald’s Fairbairn Dam at just 17.7 per cent of it’s capacity, the crop could end up being much smaller this year.

Irrigators have no medium priority water allocation for the coming season leaving them to rely on what’s called ‘carry over’ — the water they did not use last year.

Those who had some allocation left from last year are allowed to use a portion of that this season.

Farmer Ross Burnett is planting a small amount of cotton now, hoping rain will arrive before December to up allocations so he can plant the rest.

“Production levels are back to around 30 per cent and we are using water we saved from last season,” he said.

He said farmers would also be weighing up dryland and semi-irrigated cotton as well as other crops like sorghum or corn.

Mr Burnett said everyone was poised to act quickly if it rained.

“If there is significant rain I think you’ll see a lot of movement, a lot of fallow fields being turned into crops,” he said.

Southern farmers facing another missed crop

Meanwhile, much of southern Queensland has just experienced its worst cotton season in living memory.

St George farmer and chairman of Cotton Australia, Hamish McIntyre, said his place was indicative of much of the area.

“We put cotton in late, hoping for a flow in the Condamine-Balonne [river] system, but water didn’t arrive so in the end, we ploughed that cotton out.

“This drought is now getting into record-breaking territory with regards to rainfall deficiencies over the whole Mary Darling Basin.

“People are discussing it in terms of how it’s similar, if not worse, than that Federation drought.”

‘Smallest crop for a long time’ expected

Mr McIntrye said at this stage, given there was little to no sub-soil moisture across southern Queensland, he expected very little cotton would be planted this year for the 2019-2020 season.

“At the moment we’re predicting Australia will produce about one million bales of cotton and probably about 225,000 to 230,000 tonne of cotton seed (next season),” he said.

“That would be our smallest crop for a long time.

“Around that St George, Dirranbandi area there will be very little, if any, cotton go in — only tiny areas, I predict.

Seed companies ready for rain

Mr McIntyre said it would only take 75 to 100 millimetres of rain to turn farmers’ fortunes around.

“I mean, we could produce four to five times that and I’m talking 4.5 million to 5 million bales,” he said.

“Our seed companies have the seed ready to do that, so we know we can do it.

“We just need that major [rain] system to come through our key growing regions, which is right through the Murray-Darling Basin, so let’s hope it happens.”

Cotton seed merchants say they have enough seed on hand for a full eastern state crop, if the season was to miraculously turn around.

Marketing manager with Cotton Seed Distributors, James Quinn, said spring rain had changed the fortunes of cotton growers before.

“It’s company policy to have a full inventory of seed if the conditions change,” he said.

“That’s happened before; I remember we have had to react very quickly.

“I’ve seen two seasons turn around on rainfall events in August and September where we have gone from a situation like we have now to one of the second highest plantings ever.”

Mr Quinn said what made this year different was that the entire cotton growing region was desperately dry, with not one grower boasting stored water.

“One of the features of this year is that the dry is so widespread,” he said.

“But seed is still being bought in all the traditional areas.

“There is no area that is not taking seed at this stage but the amount is lower, as is expected.”