Tropical cotton production

Information for Northern cotton growers

Northern Australia has enormous potential as a cotton production region, but faces some very different challenges when compared to traditional temperate growing regions. Higher temperatures and rainfall, soils with lower water holding capacity that are prone to crusting, and the need to allow for compensatory growth after fruit shedding when climatic stresses occur (e.g. cloud, temperature extremes) need to be factored into management plans.

What do you need to know?

The main thing to remember is to be realistic about initial yield potential. While cotton is a hardy and resilient plant well suited to tropical production, inexperience and the unexpected can quickly result in lost yield potential. During the last 10 years, irrigated crop yields in Northern Australia have varied from 5.5-12 bales/ha, with about 10 per cent of irrigated crops abandoned due to unforeseen events.

Therefore, if considering tropical cotton, do not assume that you will achieve industry-reported average yields from Southern Australia during your first attempts. Some of the main considerations when growing cotton in a tropical environment include: understanding the challenges of growing cotton in the wet season; and making decisions re irrigated or dryland cotton and the corresponding sowing times and water conservation techniques. This fact sheet - a collaboration between CRDC, Cotton Australia, CSD, CottonInfo and Bayer - outlines some of the main considerations when growing cotton in a tropical environment.

So, what should you do on your farm?

The checklist for growers considering growing cotton in the tropics:

  • Ginning and module transportation: Complete your arrangements for ginning before you commit to planting cotton. Note: current biosecurity restrictions exclude ginning of cotton grown in the Northern Territory and Western Australia at any facilities in Central Queensland.
  • Suitable equipment: Successful cotton production depends on the ability to conduct timely agronomic operations, particularly during the wet season when the window for action can be very short between rainfall events. 
  • Crop monitoring and management advice: The availability of crop consultants is limited in some regions. Wet season cotton production requires agronomic practices that are suited to tropical conditions and some southern cotton production tactics (sowing, nitrogen, growth regulator and irrigation) are not directly transferable. The ability to contextualise advice to match local conditions is essential. 
  • Local communication: Spray drift (onto and off cotton) is an important consideration, both for the cotton crop and for off-field impacts. It is your responsibility to ensure chemical drift is minimised on your farm and does not occur outside your property boundaries. Develop a pesticide application management plan (PAMP) and discuss your plans to grow cotton with your neighbours so any concerns can be adequately addressed.
  • Biosecurity restrictions: There are key pests, weeds and diseases that only occur in Northern or Southern Australia and therefore biosecurity practices that limit movement of these organisms between regions is critically important.
  • Transgenic cotton requirements: There are specific industry and government regulations that apply to production of transgenic cotton in Australia. These can vary between regions, so talk with your relevant Bayer representative regarding your requirements. 
  • Crop inputs: You will need to source suppliers for farm inputs such as seed, fertiliser, herbicides, insecticides, growth regulators, defoliants and a licence to grow GM cotton Technology User Agreement (TUA). 
  • Best practice: The Australian cotton industry utilises the myBMP (best management practice) system to demonstrate to the community the industry’s improved farming practices and careful management of our natural resources. Expansion of cotton in to new areas should consider and manage risks to water quality, local fauna, and natural vegetation. 
  • Marketing: Cotton has unique marketing parameters based around fibre quality. Discuss premium and discount sheets as well as price with an experienced cotton merchant/marketer

More information is available in this fact sheet.

Where should I go for more information?

The cotton industry has a large number of information resources to support cotton growers and it is important to stay informed on emerging issues and best practice. Southern information will not always be applicable to Northern Australia so use information specific to northern regions if available.

Cotton industry researchers:

Stephen Yeates - CSIRO
Email: stephen.yeates@csiro.au

Paul Grundy - QLD DAF
Email: paul.grundy@daf.qld.gov.au 

Publications: