The Australian cotton industry stretches from Emerald in central Queensland through southern Queensland and northern NSW to the Murrumbidgee valley in southern NSW. In a year with plentiful water, around 550,000 hectares of cotton are planted with potential production of over four million bales and a value of more than $2 billion.
Well over 90% of the Australian cotton crop is exported — mainly to Asian destinations such as Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, China and Thailand. Australia produces some of the best cotton in the world and it is highly valued by cotton spinners in export markets for its colour, strength, fibre length and lack of contamination. End users know that Australian cotton is produced under a Best Management Practice (BMP) regime from the field through to the cotton gin and the finished fabric. BMP is an assurance that world best practice is used in growing the crop — especially regarding environmental practices and water use efficiency.
Most of the Australian crop is grown under irrigation, although large areas of the Darling Downs and northern NSW are used for dryland cotton. It is a summer crop — that is, it is planted in spring (mid-September through to the end of November) and harvested in the autumn (early March through to late May). Contrary to popular opinion, a cotton crop is not a particularly heavy user of water — most other irrigated crops use substantially more water than cotton per hectare. Cotton’s background is as a desert plant and it is well adapted to the Australian environment.
Planting when soil temperatures exceed 15°C. Seeds are planted into beds which have been prepared over winter. As with most farming operations, planting is done using GPS guidance for great accuracy. Irrigation is applied either before or after planting, depending on the season. Residual herbicides are applied at planting.
Early weed and insect control. Replanting and late planting. Crops start to set squares (buds).
Weed and insect control. This is the time when the season starts to get serious and decisions need to be made about the crucial first crop irrigation. The cotton squares begin to turn to flowers. Decisions also need to be made about late fertiliser applications including foliar fertilisers.
This is the critical time of the season. It is the time of peak flowering and the cotton bolls start to develop. If the management is good and the weather favourable for the next few weeks, a great crop can be produced. Irrigation timing, foliar fertilisers and growth regulator application are vital.
Most of the crop has been set and it is important not to lose it at this stage. Timing of the final irrigation is crucial to allow the crop to fully mature.
When about 60% of the cotton bolls are open (white, fluffy cotton), defoliants are applied to get rid of the leaves and reduce any contamination at harvest. Early picking starts in some areas.
Picking is usually in full swing and so are the cotton gins — separating the cotton fibre from the seeds embedded within it. This is a period when the whole industry prays for fine weather because too much rain can significantly reduce the quality of the cotton lint.
May to August
After picking, the cotton stalks are slashed. Minimal cultivation is used to prevent survival of heliothis pupae and attention turns to preparing the ground for the next crop or planting a winter rotation crop.