The CSIRO has predicted that if 15,000 hectares of the crop were grown in the Ord region of the Kimberley, it would be worth $80 million.
If the same was done in Queensland, beef spin-offs would grow that figure to $340 million.
Chinese-owned company Kimberley Agricultural Investment (KAI) has got the ball rolling by planting the first commercial-sized cotton crops in the Ord in 40 years.
KAI came to the Ord River growing area in northern Western Australia in 2012, leasing 13,000 hectares of land for 50 years.
“Last year we made a decision to grow 350 hectares of cotton,” CEO Jim Englke said.
“The reason for that and the objective of that is on one hand to look at the commercial side of it, that’s planting cotton in the wet season, but also at the same time have a research and development component where we are looking to finesse the management of cotton in that period of the year.”
CSIRO researcher Stephen Yeates was in Kununurra working on cotton at the time.
“Unfortunately, due to delayed expansion of the scheme and the moratorium on genetically modified crops and some climatic risk issues we hadn’t accounted for [like] when the wet starts early and interferes with picking at that time of year, it never came to anything basically,” he said.
Despite witnessing that failure, he does believe the tide has turned on cotton.
“When you get to most commodities, because they’re not worth a lot per kilogram when you break it down, like grain crops at maybe 20 to 50 cents a kilo, those transport and isolation make them difficult to be profitable,” he said.
“The high-valued horticulture crops often have very small market niches that you can easily saturate.”
The turning point was the development of a genetically modified cotton variety called Bollard III in 2016.
It’s able to withstand the insects that can plague the northern wet season and was part of cotton’s demise last time.
Mr Englke said at a time when pesticides are “almost consigned to history”, genetic modification is essential.
“The technology allows us to do what we are doing,” he said.
“It allows for a more efficient plant, it resists pest attack, [it has] more efficient water use, so there is a lot of upside to the GM technology in terms of cotton.”
Farm manager Luke McKay grew up on a cotton farm in the much more traditional growing area of New South Wales. But he’s now firmly planted in the north and has just returned from Brazil.
Overseas he was studying cotton as part of a Nuffield Scholarship — a prestigious opportunity for industry leaders and innovators to travel the world studying an agricultural topic.
He said there was a lot to learned from the South American growers, particularly about growing cotton in a monsoonal climate.
“Brazil was top of the list for cotton and [I’ve] just been there and had a look around and my head is still spinning,” he said.
“It certainly reaffirms a lot of the theories we have for here and definitely gave us a lot more confidence that our focus at the moment around cotton and how to manage cotton in tropical wet season conditions can be done and can be done very well.”
A major challenge since the formation of the Ord growing scheme is cost, as operating from such a remote part of Australia doesn’t come cheap.
The cotton has to travel 3,500km to Dalby to be ginned, a cost that KAI recognises will not be economical long term.
If they are to have an industry, a processing plant must be built in Kununurra, where the company would like to see more than 10,000 hectares of cotton growing to support a gin.
“Just to build a cotton gin you’ve got to allow yourself two years, so I think in two years we’d have a lot of people, a lot of the local growers, that would be willing to participate,” Mr Englke said.
Also front of mind is community support for growing cotton and its use of water.
“We don’t need a lot of irrigation water to grow a cotton crop,” Mr Yeates said.
“You’re basically finishing it off the last two months with irrigation and that leaves you from harvest in July to October to grow a second crop straight after cotton, which in terms of adding to the rotation and diversifying the system is pretty valuable.”
A boost to the cattle industry
One reason this industry is different from other crops in the region is the possible run-on effects for livestock.
The dominant Kimberley cattle industry is labelling cotton a game changer.
Beef giant Consolidated Pastoral Company already uses the seed from the Ord trial on its west Australian stations to fatten cattle.
CEO Troy Setter said it would seriously boost the cattle game in the north if cotton were to take off.
“The by-products from cotton, the cottonseed meal, is really high in protein and really high in natural oil — it’s a great feed for cattle,” he said.
“But it’s also the flow-on benefits of increased mechanics in the area, increased electricians, better water science.
“[In] Northern Australia, the cattle here really need supplementation with phosphorus and protein and the cost of bringing that from southern Australia is really expensive.
“If we could produce more of that natural plant protein in northern Australia to supplement our cattle, it would help beef production and lower the cost of production.”
Also watching closely is the tight-knit group of Ord farmers ready to pounce if cotton proves its worth.
Fritz Bolten is one of those farmers. His family migrated from Germany when he was 10.
“We’ve tried all crop types and have been searching for one solid base crop,” he said.
“We thought we had it with sugar, we thought chia might be that, and we are really looking for that solid rotation so that we can continue with these niche crops and do the exciting stuff as well.”
He has started preparing for cotton and even buying equipment.
“I actually bought the cotton planter two years ago and we’re now re-lasering fields to make sure in a year or two when we do get the opportunity to plant cotton, we’re going to do a really good job of it,” he said.
Grain giant determined for success
It’s not just Western Australia that has shown an interest in northern cotton.
In north Queensland, grain giant Ron Greentree is in his third commercial season.
He leased Strathmore Station near Georgetown in Queensland with Scott Harris.
“We decided last year that we could keep doing trials until the cows come home, but we just needed to do a commercial-sized crop, so last year we decided to put a thousand hectares in,” he said.
Flood damage has meant the results are not what they had hoped, but Mr Greentree remains optimistic about the industry, although he also concedes a gin would need to be built in north Queensland.
“At the moment we are taking it to Emerald which is 1,200km and that’s costing us $100 a lint bale, so it’s just ridiculous to be wasting that amount of money on transporting it,” he said. “It’s like the chicken and egg.
“Unless you’ve got enough cotton it’s not worth building a gin, but if you haven’t got the gin you can’t increase your acres.”
Despite having all his previous success in southern growing areas, Mr Greentree said encompassing the north in future agriculture plans in Australia was a necessity.
“We can do this and I’m sure we can make it successful,” he said. “Are we going to make a lot of mistakes? Of course we are. Am I spending too much money? Yes I am.
“But I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Source: Irrigation Australia 2018-11