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On the Land

22 October, 2021

Good time to be in northern cotton

THE North Queensland cotton community came together at Tumoulin last Friday night, to celebrate the year that was in their fledgling industry.

By Sally Turley

Nutrien Ag Solutions Tolga manager, Tom Mugford and Advanced Farm Services Senior Agronomist, Maurilio Rezende Silva Neto, Mackay Farming Group’s Brent Wilson and Norm Liddle of Tully based Liddles Aerial Spraying company, were all excited about the potential of the northern cotton industry

THE North Queensland cotton community came together at Tumoulin last Friday night, to celebrate the year that was in their fledgling industry. 

The Nutrien Ag Solutions' sponsored event included a panel of guest speakers, a feast of pizzas, a jumping castle for the kids and even a whip-cracking show presented by world record holder, Nathan Griggs. 

With cotton prices at an all-time high of up to $660 a bale, it was “a good time to be a cotton grower,” according to Sam Lee of Cotton Seed Distributors, New South Wales. 

Nutrien Ag Tolga manager, Tom Mugford called the night a celebration of the achievements of their farmers to date. 

“We want to create a strong community around the northern cotton industry, including the sharing of information and networking amongst growers. It is refreshing to be in an industry that works so well together. Everyone wants to help each other and to see the whole thing moving forward,” he said.

It was Mick James of Queensland Cotton Emerald who addressed the question on everyones' lips, "when will Queensland Cotton build a gin in North Queensland?" 

The answer is essentially “when northern production reaches 80,000 bales per year. 

“Building a gin will cost around $30,000,000, which at an interest rate of 3.5% equates to $1,000,000 or 40,000 bales at $25/bale per year. General fixed costs including the cost of 6 permanent employees also comes in at $1,000,000 a year or another 40,000 bales of cotton,” Mr James said. 

“Covering variable costs of seasonal staff , electricity, maintenance and so on works out at a further $35/bale. It's a numbers game which has resulted in most recent gins being grower funded.”

New South Wales cotton grower and northern cotton pioneer at the 43,706 ha St Ronans station near Mt Surprise, David Statham of Sundown Pastoral Comapany has been involved in the industry since 1984 and believed cotton attracted Australia's best farmers. 

Forced north by drought and the desire to expand, he bought St Ronans, which has around 5,261 ha suited to cropping, in 2019 After harvesting their second crop during one of the driest, followed by one of the wettest seasons on record, he said cotton had been kind to him. 

Sundown's General Manager of Cropping Operations, “St Ronans” and “Keytah” Nick Gillingham said they had harvested five bales/ha off 1000ha of fresh ground last year and 4.5bales/ha from 1200ha of country this year. 

“Double the rain didn't produce double the result. It was a challenge managing so much water falling so quickly, leaving soils low in Ph and nitrogren. 

“We have learned we have to grow the crop as quickly as we can up here while there is moisture around the plant and have found wind can be a problem during defoliation. We can defoliate in the south and the plant will stand for months, but windy conditions have caused losses at St Ronans. 

“No frost in the North means the cotton keeps growing up here and it has been difficult to get rid of return cotton which grows all year round on the edge of the fields. We don't want to plough up here and are trialing a water cutting jet on plants before injecting the stems with Starane.” he said.

Mt Garnet grower Dean Jonsson found it was a steep learning curve during his first crop. 

“We had washouts with the big rain, so are now building contour banks for the next crop. We are adjusting our fertiliser application and have upgraded our planter for better seed placement,” he said. 

“We have also surveyed our country to rectify leaving cotton behind in the fields next time. We ended up with 3.5 bales/ha for our first harvest and while we were pretty happy with that, we are aiming for five bales/ha from next year's crop." 

There may be many challenges for northern growers, but there are also advantages in the north. 

Tom Mugford, Tolga Nutrien branch manager, said cotton was a very positive industry to be a part of and said there would be more cotton in the ground next season. 

“We are expecting four or fi ve new growers who will be planting substantial areas, as well as existing growers expanding their current crop size. 

“We are gearing up to have the resources to provide a high level of service to the industry and are working hard on agronomy to increase crop production and efficiency. We are confident there will be a gin in the north soon,” he said.

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