Cotton skills heat up in south

Cotton skills heat up in south

Sunland Agriculture director, Tim Watson (right), “Lanes Bridge”, Hillston, talking with his farm manager Dave Winter (left), in a crop of BRF74 cotton.

Sunland Agriculture director, Tim Watson (right), “Lanes Bridge”, Hillston, talking with his farm manager Dave Winter (left), in a crop of BRF74 cotton.

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ANY lingering doubts about southern NSW's long-term significance as a cotton industry player get blown out of the paddock at Tim and Sally Watson's farming aggregation just outside Hillston.

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ANY lingering doubts about southern NSW's long-term significance as a cotton industry player get blown out of the paddock at Tim and Sally Watson's farming aggregation just outside Hillston.

The Watson enterprise is a good indicator of how serious the deep south's commitment to the fibre crop has become in a district which has steadily defied drought and cooler-than-average growing temperatures to make its name on the national cotton scene during the past 15 years.

With industry-topping yields averaging 12.2 bales a hectare for the past eight seasons and an energetic approach to doing the job properly - and sometimes unconventionally - their Sunland Agriculture was named Monsanto Grower of the Year at the 2014 Cotton Industry Awards.

Last year's best field yields peaked near 13 bales a hectare.

This summer's thriving 800ha flood- and pivot-irrigated crop has been in the ground on Sunland's "Lanes Bridge" aggregation for almost two months and is potentially another top performer in a year where many seasoned growers have had to scale back because of water limitations.

In past seasons Sunland has also grown about 400ha of its cotton crop using drip irrigation.

Benchmarking by agribusiness and technical consultancy group Agripath last year rated the enterprise's gross margin per hectare returns from cotton in the top 10 per cent of NSW and southern Queensland irrigation farms involved in its extensive comparative analysis.

The Watsons, with help from 10 full-time employees, including managers David Winter and Ben Turner, farm about 3000 hectares (including leased country) of which about 2000ha is irrigated.

Cotton has been gradually increasing its place in Sunland Ag's cropping program since 2000 and now occupies almost half the total irrigated area.

It shares the farm's water allocations from the Lachlan River and four bores with wheat, beetroot, and until this year, seedless watermelons supplied to retailers throughout eastern Australia.

In fact, from 2003 watermelons built up as a summer mainstay for the Watsons who then used cotton as a follow-up crop to make extra use of 400ha of dripper tape buried about 20 centimetres below the surface, which is replaced every second year.

Sweet corn and maize crops have also been part of Sunland programs in the past.

Originally from a mixed cropping and livestock background at Deniliquin, Mr Watson's connection with Hillston began soon after he bought his first header in 1984 to supplement earnings on the family farm with contract harvesting work.

"We came to Hillston for a week and it all led to an on-going involvement with farmers around here, especially some who were using the area's water supply reliability to develop their operations," he said.

The contract harvesting business grew swiftly, expanding into crop preparation and sowing, peaking in the early 1990s with nine headers and four tractors.

To diversify their earnings and make extra use of the machinery inventory, the Watsons also leased and sharefarmed some country, eventually buying a property at Berrigan in 1992 then focusing on Hillston with the first of several acquisitions in 1998.

Dryland cereal production expanded into irrigated crops, including corn and a tilt at a small area of cotton, then melons, with the irrigated plantings supported through the "milennium drought" by access to a potable-quality bore water supply from an aquifer about 40 metres down.

"We try to use our river water licence as much as possible - typically about 50pc of our water comes from the Lachlan and 30pc from bores," Mr Watson said.

"But bore water ultimately gives us security to produce in dry years, and importantly, security of supply and an ability to build up relationships with customers."

Good access to water was a factor in the Watsons accepting a proposal to grow beetroot for Simplot Australia's Edgell's brand in 2009, despite having never grown the crop before.

Their team managed to match the Australian production average of 37 tonnes/ha in their first season, then set the bar higher by looking at production and research ideas in the UK and New Zealand and subsequently almost tripled their yield.

Sunland's crop average from an expanded 120ha of beetroot is now about 60 tonnes/ha, while 200ha of irrigated durum and hard wheat varieties Bellaroi and Dart averages about nine tonnes.

"I think horticulture crops have taught us a lot about paying attention to detail over the years," Mr Watson said.

"We've applied that same sort of logic to growing cotton as well when it comes to crossing the Ts and dotting the Is.

"In fact, compared to some of the challenges involved with vegies and using sub-surface irrigation, cotton is actually a simpler crop to anticipate and manage."

Griffith-based agronomy consultant Allan Jones attributed much of the Sunland enterprise's production success to Mr Watson being "a very good logistics manager who gets things done properly and on time".

"He's definitely one of the best in the cotton industry," he said.

Mr Jones, who works for Agronomic Business Solutions - long time advisors to Sunland - said Mr Watson was good at identifying what aspects of his operation, or a crop's development, might hamstring his returns, and then "making sure they don't get a chance to".

"There are no snake oil fertiliser recipes behind those top yields," he said.

"It's just a a matter of investing a lot in having the right people and getting your water, nitrogen, layout and timing correct - and having reasonable soil types to work with."

This article is sourced from The Land’s ’10 of Our Best’ feature showcasingfarm families’ success stories from across NSW.

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