WET weather in the State’s north didn’t stop WA’s first commercial cotton crop in seven years going in the ground within the Kimberley’s Ord Irrigation Scheme last week.
Approximately 200 hectares of cotton was planted on the property of Chinese-owned company Kimberley Agricultural Investment (KAI) north of Kununurra over several days last week, with operations brought to a halt following 100 millimetres brought down by Tropical Cyclone Kelvin.
A further 100ha to 150ha will be sown in a few weeks when soils dry out.
Heavily involved in the operation is KAI farm manager Luke McKay, who oversees the company’s cropping program throughout the irrigated Ord River valley and is one of this year’s Western Australian Nuffield Scholars.
Mr McKay said three cotton varieties had been chosen for this year’s commercial crop, after yielding positive results in CSIRO’s wet season trials in 2017.
“We’ve got a spread of varieties that we picked out of last year’s trials, so we’re putting them in to a commercial scenario to see how they perform and how we can manage them a bit differently,” Mr McKay said.
“We plan to target what each variety requires as opposed to just a blanket treatment over a trial, so we’re breaking it into separate areas.”
Cotton has not been grown on a commercial scale in the Kimberley since 2011, with the industry facing several challenges including pest control problems and quality issues.
Typically, cotton has been planted in the dry season in the Ord, but developments in genetically modified technology have made an earlier sowing window viable.
Mr McKay said developments in Bollgard 3 technology had opened the opportunity for a wet season crop.
“The advancement in the Bollgard technology – which is the insect management gene in the cotton – has made a big difference, it controls heliothis caterpillar and spodoptera caterpillars which have been a big problem,” he said.
“Normally cotton was only grown during the dry season which starts around April, but because of Bollgard we get control over caterpillars which we have a much higher prevalence of during this time of the year.
“Previously when cotton has been grown those insects built resistance to the insecticides and it became uneconomical to grow cotton because of it.”
If all goes to plan the crop will be harvested in July, giving KAI the option to grow a second crop this year.
As part of his Nuffield Scholarship – sponsored by Cotton Australia and the Cotton Research and Development Corporation - Mr McKay will research issues relevant to tropical cotton-growing systems such as double cropping, rotation crops, irrigation methods, staff requirements, machinery requirements, and resource and environmental management.
He will embark on a six week study tour, visiting countries such as Brazil, Canada, China and America.
“I’m really keen to get to Brazil and see what they’re doing over there, it’s probably the most comparable to some of things we’re trying to do over here and some of the conditions we face,” Mr McKay said.
“If we plant cotton early enough then there’s the opportunity to put a quick crop on the other end of it like mung beans or millet, and part of looking around the world is to try and look at how we best achieve that.”
Mr McKay said there was still a lot to learn about growing cotton in northern WA, but he was optimistic of its potential in the Ord River valley.
“Hopefully we can target our development around what we think is going to work best for cotton and the other crops that we’re growing,” he said.
“If we were just setting the development up for cotton it would be a bit easier but we’ve also got our chia, quinoa and corn so we’re just trying to make sure they all work together in a system because we don’t want to be just focusing on one crop.
“Cotton definitely looks like it can provide something that will underpin the area, but we need to be cropping those high value grains and corn that has a rotation to support it.
“The trial work suggests that we’re on the right track but converting that into a commercial reality is the challenge and just making sure we don’t trip up too much in making it work.”
KAI general manager Jim Engelke said the trial was the beginning of a long-term plan for developing the cotton industry in the region.
If successful, KAI plans to expand its cotton crop up to 3000ha and invest in a cotton processing gin.
“We’ve been focused on getting a cotton industry up and running and the trial commercial planting is really just to sure up our positions and understanding of doing cotton,” Mr Engelke said.
“It’s the first step into scaling but it’s also an opportunity to learn a bit more about the commercial decision making process around planting cotton at this time of the year.”