For years environmental groups have put the Australian cotton industry under the microscope, saying the “thirsty” crop should not be grown on the driest continent.
After decades of work, the industry now claims to be one of the most water-efficient in the world and gathered this week in Narrabri to celebrate its achievements.
Since 1992, water-use productivity by Australian cotton growers has improved by 48 per cent.
Industry claims other improvements have been made in areas like insecticide use, which has decreased by 95 per cent since 1993.
Cotton Australia chief executive Adam Kay said a lot of money and research had been invested to improve water efficiency in particular.
“I think our farmers many years ago recognized that water was the number-one limiting factor to irrigated crop production and so they’ve had to work over the years to drive that water-use efficiency,” he said.
That does not mean the sector is using less water, just that it is producing a lot more cotton.
Boggabri cotton grower Andrew Watson said he had seen huge leaps made in water efficiency on his family farm.
“In 1998 we were producing about seven bales per hectare and using about 7.1 megalitres per hectare,” he said.
“Now what’s happened in the intervening 20-odd years is we’re not using any more water, and this year we’re actually expecting to pick 13 or 14 bales per hectare and we averaged 14 last year.”
Still challenges to overcome
The Nature Conservation Council is unconvinced by the cotton industry’s claims that it is sustainable.
Campaigner Melissa Gray says the industry has received billions in public money through the Murray-Darling Basin plan for new water infrastructure which is why it’s been able to improve water efficiency.
But she said it was still harvesting enormous amounts of water, for free, through floodplain harvesting.
Growers counter that, arguing water use has been cut by 20 per cent due to government buybacks and efficiency schemes that have seen water returned to the environment in exchange for infrastructure money.
Andrew Watson said in the Darling system, only about 14 per cent of the water was now used for irrigation.
“In dry years, it’s zero – all the water that falls and goes down the rivers actually goes to the environment.”
He said growers carefully managed the water, especially in dry times, to keep things ticking over.
That does not satisfy people like Bill Johnson, the former senior research scientist with the NSW Department of Natural Resources who now campaigns to preserve the river’s systems.
He agrees the industry has dramatically reduced its chemical use but says it’s got a long way to go on water.
Melissa Gray agrees.
“In drought years we see catastrophic fish kills because of the cumulative impact of floodplain harvesting, the groundwater is not recharging and the environment is taking an enormous hit.”
Adam Kay from Cotton Australia is frustrated with those criticisms and says the industry is not to blame for the fish kills.
He claims iconic environmental sites like the Macquarie Marshes on the Darling have had a huge increase in environmental water, from just 40,000ML 30 years ago to 334,000ML today.
Irrigators in that region take just 15 per cent of the consumptive water, he claimed, while 90 per cent of the marshes are in graziers’ hands and the problem is not a lack of water, but a degradation caused by grazing management practices.
Flood irrigation vs drip
Melissa Day wants to see the industry move away from flood irrigation and use drip irrigation systems.
“We can look to places like Israel that are leading the charge with technology that we are going to have to embrace.”
Adam Kay, however, says that suggestion as “uninformed”.
“If I had a sandy light soil like in Israel, I am sure drip would come out on top, but with heavy clay soils like the bulk of the Australian industry, the answer is different.”
The industry has trialled different irrigation systems since 2009 to compare yields and water use, and found Australia’s highly variable climate made it difficult to choose a system that would perform consistently better.
Mr Kay also dismissed the idea that cotton is a “thirsty” crop, arguing it uses the same amount of water as corn, less than lucerne for hay, and just half the amount needed for almonds.
Cotton harvest outlook
As the harvest in northern New South Wales ramps up, growers elsewhere in the state and across Queensland are expecting a record-breaking crop.
They need it in the north-west of NSW after devastating floods late last year ruined winter crops and washed away young cotton plants.
Nevertheless, Mr Watson said quality and yields looked promising for the remaining cotton crops.
“Around here I’m hearing sort of 16-bales-to-the-hectare mark, which is lovely,” he said.
In southern NSW, the harvest is due to start next week, with yields expected to average around 10.5 bales per hectare, despite a very cold start to the season.
Southern Cotton farm manager Paul Flewitt said his biggest challenge would be getting contract pickers who were still tied up further north.
“Everyone wants to get that next crop in, so it would be nice to get it all off down here by early June, but it’s just not going to happen this year unfortunately.”