Ball rolls on Ord cot­ton

The cot­ton in­dus­try is be­ing re­born decades af­ter pests de­stroyed the com­mer­cial in­dus­try at the Ord River. And there are hopes it will be a pre­mium prod­uct. Jenne Bram­mer re­ports.

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The cot­ton in­dus­try is be­ing re­born in WA, with the help of a new seed de­signed for plant­ing in wet con­di­tions. Kim­ber­ley Agri­cul­tural In­vest­ments gen­eral man­ager Jim En­gelke over­saw the re­cent 350ha plant­ing in the Ord Ir­ri­ga­tion Scheme.

A buzz of ex­cite­ment can be felt in the far north of WA, as dreams of re­viv­ing a lu­cra­tive cot­ton in­dus­try in the Kim­ber­ley look like they could fi­nally come true.

The stars are align­ing and hopes are high that the in­dus­try could fi­nally be re­born, decades af­ter in­sect pests caused the col­lapse of com­mer­cial cot­ton pro­duc­tion at the Ord River, near Ku­nunurra.

Hopes are pinned on a new method of cot­ton plant­ing, good re­sults from smaller tri­als last year, and on­go­ing re­search and de­vel­op­ment sup­port.

And, im­por­tantly, there is a strong de­sire by lo­cal farm­ers and busi­ness in the area, led by Shang­hai Zhongfu-owned Kim­ber­ley Agri­cul­tural In­vest­ment, to es­tab­lish cot­ton as a ma­jor crop in the re­gion.

A big mile­stone in the re­birth of the in­dus­try was KAI’s plant­ing of 350ha of cot­ton over Fe­bru­ary and March at its 6700ha Goomig prop­erty, mark­ing the big­gest com­mer­cial plant­ing in years.

Un­der­pin­ning cur­rent con­fi­dence is ge­netic im­prove­ments in cot­ton seed, which have made a new ap­proach to plant­ing pos­si­ble.

That means cot­ton is be­ing planted early in the year, around Fe­bru­ary and March, dur­ing the wet sea­son. In most ear­lier at­tempts, cot­ton had been planted around mid-year, dur­ing the dry.

Ord Ir­ri­ga­tion Co-op­er­a­tive chair­man David Men­zel, who is also the Shire of Wyn­d­ham-East Kim­ber­ley pres­i­dent, said sow­ing cot­ton ear­lier in the year could be chal­leng­ing but it changed the grow­ing win­dow to bet­ter match the cli­mate.

Im­por­tantly, there was plenty of mois­ture dur­ing early growth, and har­vest­ing mid-year in dry con­di­tions meant lint qual­ity was not af­fected by rain.

Wet sea­son plant­ings have been made pos­si­ble by Mon­santo’s re­lease of a new ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied cot­ton va­ri­ety called Boll­gard 3, which has re­sis­tance to the more dam­ag­ing in­sect pests, in­clud­ing one that thrives dur­ing the Kim­ber­ley wet sea­son.

Key stake­hold­ers are op­ti­mistic about this new method of plant­ing af­ter a 5ha wet sea­son-planted trial by Ku­nunurra’s Ceres Farms last year proved highly suc­cess­ful.

Ord River Dis­trict Co-op­er­a­tive chief ex­ec­u­tive David Cross said plant­ing in the wet sea­son pro­vided the best chance to max­imise lint yield and qual­ity.

Mr Men­zel is hope­ful the new method of plant­ing could even mean Ord-grown cot­ton may be­come a pre­mium prod­uct.

“Plant­ing at this time pro­duces longer and stronger cot­ton — which is pretty ex­cit­ing,” he said.

“We are hope­ful, based on promis­ing re­sults from last year, this could be a pre­mium prod­uct, rather than a com­mod­ity cot­ton crop.

“It po­si­tions grow­ers in the Ord to pro­duce a pre­mium prod­uct, bet­ter than the high-qual­ity stuff Aus­tralia pro­duces a lot of any­way.”

Dou­ble ro­ta­tion

Another ben­e­fit of wet sea­son plant­ing, ac­cord­ing to Mr Cross, is the po­ten­tial to sow a sec­ond crop af­ter cot­ton, al­low­ing for bet­ter util­i­sa­tion of key as­sets and cap­i­tal em­ployed.

“This is cur­rently not oc­cur­ring, with the ex­ist­ing an­nual crop­ping pro­gram gen­er­ally be­ing one crop per year,” he said.

While there are plenty of pos­i­tive signs, a re­straint to in­dus­try growth is be­ing able to crop land with suf­fi­cient lighter, free-drain­ing soil types. The abil­ity to crop on this type of land is vi­tal, be­cause it may be im­pos­si­ble to put traf­fic on the heav­ier soils dur­ing the wet sea­son.

For that rea­son, another ma­jor mile­stone for the in­dus­try will be when KAI gets State Gov­ern­ment ap­provals to start de­vel­op­ing Carl­ton Plain, part of its free­hold 8000ha Carl­ton Hill Sta­tion.

Pro­vided those ap­provals are timely, and this year’s cot­ton crop proves as suc­cess­ful as Ceres’ 2017 trial, KAI plans to grow a 1000ha cot­ton crop in 2019, even­tu­ally in­creas­ing to about 3000ha by 2021.

KAI gen­eral man­ager Jim En­gelke said the red soils of Carl­ton Plain can take traf­fic al­most all year around, so the ac­cess prob­lems for plant­ing on the black soils of Goomig be­come less of an is­sue.

He said year-round ac­cess was vi­tal if lo­cal pro­cess­ing was to be es­tab­lished. Ac­cess to th­ese lighter soils mit­i­gates the risk of the pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity not hav­ing enough through­put to jus­tify the in­vest­ment.

Cot­ton from this year’s har­vest — prob­a­bly start­ing in July — will be sent thou­sands of kilo­me­tres east for pro­cess­ing, with freight costs vir­tu­ally wip­ing out any prof­its. But if cot­ton can be grown suc­cess­fully at a larger scale near Ku­nunurra, and enough other farm­ers enter the in­dus­try, KAI would build a $30 mil­lion to $40 mil­lion cot­ton pro­cess­ing gin.

Mr En­gelke said if all else hap­pened as planned, the gin would need to be built within the next two to three years, with the long-term aim of pro­cess­ing 10,000-15,000ha of lo­cally grown cot­ton a year.

Based on 10,000ha plant­ings, the Ord cot­ton lint in­dus­try could be worth about $60 mil­lion a year, most of which would be sold to China and South-East Asia. But there is also mas­sive po­ten­tial for the cot­ton­seed byprod­uct closer to home.

Cot­ton­seed makes up about 58 per cent of the picked cot­ton by weight, and pro­vides and ex­cel­lent high-pro­tein, high-fi­bre food for live­stock.

“A large value-add stock feed in­dus­try could re­sult as a con­se­quence of the cot­ton in­dus­try,” Mr En­gelke said.

“It’s typ­i­cal to get more than three tonnes of seed per hectare, so 10,000ha of cot­ton would re­sult in 30,000 tonnes of seed.

“It’s not a 100 per cent ra­tion, but it could po­ten­tially feed 50,000 to 100,000 an­i­mals.

“This could lead to new mar­ket op­por­tu­ni­ties by mov­ing into higher-grade and qual­ity mar­kets us­ing An­gus or Wagyu ge­net­ics.”

Surety for farm­ers

Mr Men­zel said KAI’s in­tent to un­der­pin a cot­ton and cot­ton pro­cess­ing in­dus­try would pro­vide the long-sought com­mer­cial year-onyear crop to pro­vide surety for all farm­ers in the Ord Val­ley.

“Farm­ers grow a lot of niche crops on the Ord, but cot­ton could pro­vide a good, solid main crop,” he said. “Cot­ton could un­der­pin the busi­ness, and nice crops could pro­vide the cream on top.”

The pos­si­ble re­vival of the cot­ton in­dus­try could not come at a bet­ter time, given un­cer­tainly over the san­dal­wood in­dus­try amid the demise of Quin­tis.

“Our ma­jor crop in the Ord at the mo­ment is san­dal­wood, and we wish them all the best with their is­sues, but there is need for other ma­jor in­dus­tries,” Mr Men­zel said.

“We will have a large area of maize planted this year. That’s a fan­tas­tic crop for here, but it’s not al­ways a par­tic­u­larly high re­turn­ing crop.”

He said cot­ton had big agro­nomic ben­e­fits as part of a crop ro­ta­tion sys­tem — in par­tic­u­lar the big tap­root was ben­e­fi­cial for the soils and hence any fol­low­ing crops on the same land.

The na­ture of the cot­ton mar­ket of­fers farm­ers good risk man­age­ment tools, such as for­ward sell­ing op­tions and fu­ture con­tracts.

Mr Cross said cot­ton had the po­ten­tial to be­come one of the core crop­ping en­ter­prises for the re­gion as it could be grown on a large scale.

“We don’t see cot­ton dis­plac­ing any of the ex­ist­ing crops, it will ac­tu­ally be com­ple­men­tary by help­ing to cre­ate a more ro­bust, in­te­grated and sus­tain­able crop­ping sys­tem,” he said.

Ef­forts to de­velop the in­dus­try are sup­ported by an $11.7 mil­lion agri­cul­tural re­search project by the North­ern Aus­tralia Crop Re­search Al­liance to in­ves­ti­gate crop­ping sys­tems for grow­ing cot­ton, grain and for­age in the Ord.

Now in its sec­ond year, the re­search aims to get a deeper and val­i­dated un­der­stand­ing of the cot­ton pro­duc­tion sys­tem.

Mr Men­zel said the pos­si­ble come­back of the cot­ton in­dus­try meant the Ord was fi­nally reach­ing an econ­omy of scale that would en­sure its suc­cess.

Ord Val­ley agri­cul­ture de­liv­ered about $127 mil­lion an­nu­ally, ex­pected to rise to $323 mil­lion as the next stages of land ear­marked for ir­ri­gated agri­cul­ture are brought to pro­duc­tion, he said.

Pic­ture: Cally Dupe

Pic­tures: Cally Dupe

Cot­ton grow­ing in the Ord Ir­ri­ga­tion Scheme.

KAI trac­tor driver Peter James.

KAI gen­eral man­ager Jim En­gelke on the raised beds.

Pic­ture: Trevor Col­lens

The di­ver­sion dam on Lake Ku­nunurra.

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