FIVE-HUNDRED dollars a bale is all the reason many a grower has needed to try growing cotton in recent times.
Among those to try their hand is James Barlow, “Mirrabinda”, Bogga-bri, who averaged $640 a bale last season, in his first attempt at farming the fibre.
The Namoi Valley irrigator aims to grow 250 hectares this season – a similar quantity to last year – hoping to average even a modest $500 a bale.
“It’s the most profitable crop I’ve grown,” the young owner-manager said.
Money was the motivating factor “for sure”, he said, with advances in bio-technology making the decision easier.
The 1980s was the last time “Mirrabinda” was sown to cotton, by James’ late father, Ross.
“I think Dad had just had enough of it after a couple of big floods and the market falling over,” he said.
“Now the money is good again; Round Up Ready means you don’t have to go chipping, and with Bollgard the insects aren’t a worry.”
The venture was still profitable last season, he said, despite some considerable costs including the use of contractors.
It cost between $40 and $50 a hectare for the neighbour to sow it, $30/ha in urea, $400/ha in Round Up Ready licensing and $350ha to have it picked.
On top of this was the cost of irrigating – including water and diesel – enough for four mega litres a hectare through the growing season that totalled 200ML.
The effort, however, was repaid with a yield of 11 bales/ha to average $640/bale.
Mr Barlow decreased the amount of corn and sunflowers grown on the 900ha property, to again grow cotton.
“We have to make money and it is so economical at the moment,” he said.“The returns are better and the birds were a problem with sunflowers.”
Sorghum will be grown in the rotation to help clean up some broadleaves, in addition to 150ha of mungbeans.
Wheat and canola are part of the winter crop.
“Cotton is in the ground a long time (September through April) but it’s only a small percentage of the farm at 250ha,” he said.
“I’m trying to grow a bit of everything so we can spread the risk of fluctuating markets.
“Quite a few people here pick cotton in April and sow wheat in June using irrigation, so it’s not too limiting.”
A neighbour has again prepared the fallow for cotton, which was dressed with 200kg/ha Urea prior to 40 millimetres of rain on September 9.
Mr Barlow will have good access to surface water, with a licence for 1100ML on the Namoi River, and a full Lake Keepit – supplementing this is 600ML of groundwater.
For the meantime Mr Barlow said he was content using mostly border check irrigation on the black soils,with just the one centre pivot covering 45ha.
“Labour-wise with border check, it would be madness to set up as furrows, I’d rather set up another pivot,” he said.
“The border check is what I’ve grown up with and it works well.”
While not the latest technology Mr Barlow was content to have some stability through what was a rapid change in the family farming structure.
“It was pretty tough in the first couple of years after Dad died,” he said.“I felt a fair bit of pressure. “Like a lot of things in life though you’re just thrown in the deep end and somehow you learn to swim.”
Though he was hands on growing up, little could have prepared him for the changeover.
“The marketing side of things was the most challenging, and making big decisions,” he said.
“You spend a lot of money farming and sometimes it just seems like one big gamble with the seasons.”
His advice to other young farmers, perhaps in a similar situation, was straightforward.
“You’re going to have good years and bad years, but on the other hand farming can be very rewarding,” he said.
Biding time at Boggabri
A WAIT and see marketing approach is what Namoi Valley irrigation farmer, James Barlow, “Mirrabinda”, Boggabri, will take to the 2012 cotton season.
The young owner/manager has prepared a considerable area for cotton under three distinct systems including border-check flood irrigation, centre pivot and dryland as part of his summer rotation.
It will be just the second time he’s sown cotton.
With planting drawing closer on the 900ha black soil property he’s watching the markets more closely.
“I’m humming and harring a bit cotton wise,” he said.
Last season he grew a small amount of dryland which yielded “just over a bale an acre”. The entire crop averaged $640 a bale.
“Considering there was virtually no rain after January it was a pleasing result,” he said.
“There’s plenty of water in the river this year, with Keepit Dam full, and I’m aiming at putting 100ha under irrigation,” he said.
With contracts available at about $500 a bale Mr Barlow was quietly looking forward to the season ahead.
“Once it’s in the ground I’ll likely forward sell a portion of it,” he said.“I’ll be keeping an even closer eye on prices then, too.”