Southern cotton industry Innovation Tour
Accelerating Change had a cracking start to 2016 with a joint PIT meeting to review data collected on Partner Farms over the irrigation season and a bus tour to the southern cotton industry to showcase innovation, risk management and adoption of new research and technology. Our evaluation results from the tour found that the majority of farmers involved are enthusiastic to implement new ideas as a result of the trip, particularly focusing on irrigation scheduling, understanding soils and getting a better grasp on costs of production.
Late last year the Accelerating Change farmers discussed ways they could tap into innovation and technology that is successfully being used by different industries. The southern cotton industry was identified as a leading example of how to rapidly adopt innovation and technology to grow production and profitability. The industry has shown a tremendous ability to adapt to geographic, climatic and environmental constraints, embracing new varieties, management practices and technology. This has allowed them to grow a crop traditionally confined to a small climatic area of Australia.
This session on Landline (follow link below) is a great introduction to the industry (note the information on agronomy and water use is at 10.45 min).
Accelerating Change Innovation Bus Tour Itinerary
The following infographic maps out the sites visited and topics of conversation from the tour
The aims of the tour were:
1. Gain a greater understanding of how cotton farmers made decisions,
2. Review what strategies cotton farmers used to evaluate the role of innovation and technology in their businesses and,
3. Investigate if there were any practices that could be adopted to a dairy context.
The tour was hugely successful and generated a lot of discussion and enthusiasm for new technology and management practices, new ways of thinking and different perspectives on risk management. Farmers were asked how they felt at the end of the trip and the following moods were captured:
Based on our discussions with farmers, agronomists and industry representatives, we identified some key themes applicable to dairy businesses in northern Victoria.
Stick to the milking Tony! Tony Barbegello attempting to start a siphon. Cotton growers employ staff to stop and start 100s of siphons during the irrigation season. Every single one needs to be manually handled and checked across a huge amount of hectares.
Precision agriculture and the power of data
Two sessions on the Innovation Tour really hit home with our dairy farmers regarding the role of precision agriculture in achieving efficiency gains.
Michael Pfitzner is a dryland grain producer from north of Griffith. He presented to the group about his farming system, which focuses on farming moisture in a water-limiting environment. Michael demonstrated that the use of precision technology and data should be driven by the desired outcome. In his case, this is soil moisture conservation, which has led him to adopt practices such as zero till, controlled traffic and a completely stock free system. The absence of sheep on his farm is revolutionary when compared to a lot of farming systems with equivalent soil and rainfall resources, but the data that Michael showed us demonstrated that for his system this has led to significant increases in retained soil moisture available for crop use.
Michael collects in-depth data on a regular basis to identify constraints, challenges and opportunities each season. He has spent a significant amount of time examining soil characteristics and understanding exactly what he is working with across his entire 2500ha farm. This includes detail on soil type and fertility, yield, rainfall and financial performance across his business. Michael stressed the importance of identifying the cause of a problem on farm before deciding how to fix it (and determining if it is cost effective to do so). This sounds pretty straightforward but it is often done the other way around.
This philosophy was reiterated by Richard Malone, a cotton agronomist who works very closely with corporate farms Gundaline Station and Huddersfield Station that we visited during the tour. Richard outlined the data collection and analysis processes he undertakes for each of these farms, and how this results in improved management practices. These include soil and moisture maps obtained from EM 38 mapping and soil testing, elevation maps obtained through remote sensing technology and yield maps generated by harvest machinery. By overlaying these maps Richard and his farm managers can get a really clear understanding of variability across the respective properties, and direct their energy into understanding why this occurs. Once they have a handle on this, they can work through practical and cost-effective solutions to address the variability, if appropriate.
For both Richard and Michael, scale is no deterrent when it comes to detail. The Accelerating Change team have been thinking about how we might be able to identify and manage variability with an added advantage of having much smaller management units to deal with. Like many farmers in Australia, the cotton farmers we visited are driven by expansion and are considering more hectares to drive profitability. Concurrently, these farmers are moving towards higher resolution information to understand what’s happening in their crop and in their soil. The benefits of soil and crop improvement are multiplied with expansion. We also had a conversation with Richard about how we might be able to use pasture measurement techniques, such as those that are currently being trialled on the project’s two partner farms, in place of yield maps which are commonly generated in cotton and cropping systems at harvesting by machinery.
Soil moisture monitoring was a key focus across Huddersfield, Gundaline and the other farms we visited. Richard gave us a great overview about the use of moisture probes in conjunction with other information such as evapotranspiration data and visual inspections to inform irrigation scheduling across a large number of hectares. He reiterated that it is important, when interpreting soil probe data, to understand rooting depth of the plant at different growth phases and to look for changes in uptake of soil moisture by the plant to indicate stress points. Richard spoke about using probes to manage the majority, and how he used paddock soil maps to ensure probes were placed in representative areas.
When we visited Huddersfield and Gundaline, the importance and value of technical knowledge in farming operations was made very clear. All the cotton farmers we visited have very strong relationships with agronomists and regularly involve them in operational decisions. There were a variety of models used to engage and pay for agronomists, but the common factor was regular communication and close working relationships, to ensure an ongoing two-way dialogue about what is and isn’t working on farm.
Resource efficiency & rethinking where it can be achieved in systems
During our tour we got an insight into different cotton farming systems, approaches and agronomy. We have so far mentioned large-scale, high-input farms with expansive crops, but we saw a different approach on the Stotts almond and cotton farm, where we spoke to share farmer and manager, James Hill, and agronomist, Matt Watson.
James and Matt spoke about their focus on resource efficiency. They have questioned standard industry practices in a number of areas (namely fertiliser and pesticide use, farm layout and irrigation strategies) and identified real resource savings as a result. James spoke about focusing on the end goal, which is maximising cotton bulb yield, and analysing each management practice with this in mind. James and Matt carefully consider each management practice and application of input they use to ensure it is only exactly what is needed in the system, rather than applied “just in case”.
This approach has led them to grow a much smaller plant, with less plant density, whilst maintaining the same yield as a traditional planting. As a result, fertiliser use has been reduced to approximately half of the industry norm! They also use integrated pest management practices and have spent time understanding the life cycles and interactions of different pests. They don’t spray for thrips, which appear early in the season and do some minor damage, because maintaining them in the system supresses the development of other pests which can have much bigger consequences on the crops later on. The Stotts haven't sprayed their cotton for two years while others in the region may spray around seven times per season.
The tour showcased different technology and infrastructure in the cotton industry, some of it new and some of it existing innovation being used in new ways. We visited IREC, an industry research facility used to trial new technology and practices. Farmer, Richard Stott, leases the land from IREC and provides the crops for the research. This arrangement is mutually beneficial for his business and for research and extension to industry groups. It is a good model in which farmers, service providers and industry work together to apply research in a commercial setting.
Of interest at the site was the bankless channel system, an irrigation layout modelled on terraced rice fields, which negates the need for individual siphons commonly used in the cotton industry and allows individual automation points to service a larger number of hectares. The system is also gravity fed to minimise energy inputs. Dave Robson, from Rubicon, took us through how the automation on the site worked. One note-worthy adjustment from typical dairy systems were the water sensors installed which trigger gate openings and closing related to water progress so that farmers do not have to pre-select times. This reduces room for error associated with irrigation scheduling. This farmer-driven innovation can be seen in use in the region by clicking on the video link below.
Film clip demonstrating how bankless channels have been used on farm.
We also heard from researcher, Robert Hoogers, about the IrriSAT technology. IrriSAT is weather-based irrigation management software that uses remote sensing to provide crop management information, in particular the daily water use of particular crops at any one time. The software uses NDVI satellite imagery to estimate a crop coefficient (Kc, based on crop type & growth stage) and then calculates daily water use by multiplying Kc and daily evapotranspiration (Eto) observations from a nearby weather station.
A link to a research paper with more information on IrriSAT can be found below. You can also access IrriSAT by clicking on the link below. You just need to sign up to a google account to log in.
An interest in risk management was common between cotton and dairy farmers on the trip. Risks and risk management associated with innovation, water and commodity price was a common topic of discussion for all farm visits.
Risk of innovation
The Baxters, family farmers at Berrigan who trail-blazed the introduction of southern cotton, spoke about the importance of being flexible. They had primarily grown rice for decades but recognised the need to continue to evaluate what worked for their business and system, subsequently investing in cotton.
We asked how the Baxters had the confidence to look into cotton. They said that they had watched and learned from others further north and emphasised that knowing their cost of production was critical. This information assists them to continually evaluate whether their system is profitable and how new commodities or varieties could fit into it. Crunching the numbers on different options they had available to them is what led them away from rice and into cotton. The Baxters said that they would only grow cotton whilst the financials stack up.
They also spoke about the importance of trialing. The Baxters started out with a small area of cotton and gradually expanded, as they worked through management challenges. Accelerating Change farmers felt that the same trial process could be applied to dairy systems when considering the role of new or different forage types.
The Baxters also placed an emphasis on diversification as a risk management tool. Along with cotton, they grow irrigated summer crops like sorghum and maize and have a complimentary dryland winter cropping program. The family also run a bulk haulage trucking business.
Water & Commodity Prices
Before the trip, a few Accelerating Change farmers did not quite know what to expect in terms of how water is procured in the cotton industry. Most of the cotton farmers we spoke to shared concerns with dairy farmers around water price, availability and future trends.
The more we spoke about it, the more we realised that although cotton and dairy industries are very different, the profitability of both is significantly impacted by water prices. Cotton farmers’ ability to pay for water was much lower than we expected. One farmer we spoke to cited an approximate maximum of $300/ML, depending on other factors such as cotton price, but ideally wanted water at $150 ML or less.
Ross Askin, farm manager of Huddersfield Station, explained to us that one way cotton farmers work around the water issue is to forward sell a proportion of their crop to secure a set price for the season, and once that is done to procure the majority of water they need prior to sowing. This provides real certainty over the margin they can expect to achieve and enables them to focus on operations on farm once the cotton is in the ground.
Tour inspired actions
At the end of the trip, Accelerating Change farmers were asked after what they had seen, what they would like to invest in on their farms to improve their infrastructure or management as a result. The parameters were to think big and imagine if money was no barrier! This was to help identify what aspects of the cotton industry could be applied back home. Farmers managed to spend $7.5 million directly from what we had learnt from the trip.
Accelerating Change farmers are meeting next week to workshop ideas raised from the Innovation Tour to plan how we can incorporate them into Accelerating Change activities for 2016.