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.
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.”
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.
Cotton growing in the Ord Irrigation Scheme.
KAI tractor driver Peter James.
KAI general manager Jim Engelke on the raised beds.
The diversion dam on Lake Kununurra.