Around 150 people turned out on March 25 for a showcase of some pioneering cotton farmers in what could become Australia’s newest cotton production region – the Atherton Tablelands of north Queensland.
There were local farmers from diverse areas such as Mareeba, Dimboolah and Innot Hot Springs. And they also came from as far away as Emerald, Innisfail and Lakeland.
There has been a smattering of cotton crops around Mareeba for several years, but events of the past 12 months have seriously ignited the interest from farmers in an area famous for the reliable production of a wide range of crops – from sugarcane to corn, bananas, avocados, mangoes. In fact, the mild climate and high rainfall mean that it can produce just about any crop.
The invasion of fall armyworm (FAW) in the past year or so has really put the cat among the pigeons. FAW is a serious pest of corn and sorghum, and it loves peanuts as well. Once the insects have buried themselves into the tight folds of those plants, they are almost impossible to control, so farmers have been looking for an alternative and Bollgard cotton is seen as a good option.
The interest in cotton has been accelerated by the purchase of the property St Ronan by well-known cotton producer Sundown Pastoral Co which also operates Keytah in the Gwydir Valley. Other large farmers on the western Atherton Tableland have followed their example and produced good results with mainly dryland crops in what is a high rainfall area.
What started out as a plan to take half a dozen interested farmers in a tour of the cotton crops quickly escalated into a three-bus extravaganza.
Most crops on the tour are dryland and those planted before mid January looked great, whereas crops planted in February will need a good finish to the season to realise their potential. The only irrigated crop included in the field day had good yield potential of 12-13 bales per hectare with only two megalitres of water applied. In general, the soils are light and well drained, so although the rainfall is high, the crops can quickly become water stressed when the tap is turned off. On the other hand, it only takes a small volume of supplementary irrigation at the right time to produce a good result.
The field day was organised by Nutrien who have depots at Mareeba and Tolga and the planning and catering were first class. When was the last field day you went to that had prawns at lunch?
The cultivated areas in this part of the world are often well separated from each other. Clearing and native vegetation regulations are a major impediment to aggregating large areas of cultivation.
We visited some very impressive farms at Dalgety’s, Red Bend (irrigated), St Ronan’s and Jonsson Farms at Wombinoo. If the enthusiasm and hospitality of these growers is anything to go by, they can only be successful.
Of course, the name of the game in any new cotton area is to get a threshold level of production to justify a gin. At the moment, these growers transport cotton almost 1000 km to a gin at Emerald. Even if they can’t justify a gin on the Tablelands, a gin at somewhere like Richmond would cut their transport by 50 per cent. With major developments under way at Julia Creek and Richmond, such a result may not be too far down the track.