Cotton

24.05.17

Cotton is a fibre produced as a seed coat in the bolls (pod-like fruit) of the cotton plant. The plant (Gossypium spp.) is a summer-growing perennial bushy shrub, related to the hibiscus and native to many tropical and subtropical regions of the world. It produces flowers that turn from cream to pink. Once pollinated, the flowers drop off and are replaced by the fibre-containing fruit, called bolls.

Overview

Mature open bolls are picked and ginned to separate the cotton fibres, also called lint, from the seed. Lint makes up about 38-40% of the picked cotton, by weight, and contributes about 90% of the total income from a crop. The remaining 10% of income is from the sale of cottonseed.

Production requires a large investment in land and infrastructure, in terms of irrigation, channels and dams; as well as expensive and specialised machinery (or access to such machinery through contractors). It also requires considerable agronomic skills to ensure all operations are timed correctly and that the crop is thoroughly monitored for weeds, insects and diseases on a regular basis. Cotton is grown in rotation with other winter and summer crops, mostly wheat.

There are about 1,200 farms growing cotton in Australia. The average annual amount of cotton lint produced in Australia over the past ten years is 641,906 metric tonnes or 2.8 million bales. The industry directly employs 10,000 Australians. The average farm provides jobs for 6-7 people.

Cotton is a highly organised industry, and industry funded and directed research, development and extension have resulted in the development of varieties that are high yielding and produce high quality fibre, resulting in premium prices for Australian growers. The industry has also spent considerable time and resources improving water use efficiency, pesticide management and environmental stewardship. The interests of Australian cotton growers are represented by Cotton Australia.

There are a number of investors in research and development (R&D) and extension in the cotton industry including; Cotton Research & Development CorporationCotton Breeding Australia (a joint venture between CSIRO Plant Industry and Cotton Seed Distributors), New South Wales Department of Primary Industries and Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Facts and figures

  • Cotton can be grown as a dryland (rain-grown) or irrigated crop in Australia
  • New varieties and transgenic traits has extended the range and distribution of where cotton can be grown in Australia
  • There are about 1,200 growers in Australia, with 35% of farms growing 50–150 hectares each year and about 22% growing 150–250ha
  • Australia is the third largest exporter of cotton in the world (behind the United States and India)
  • Cotton is an intensively managed crop, with many growers using professional agronomy skills and marketing consultants

Production status

The Australian industry is based mostly on family owned and operated farms with farm size ranging from 500 to 2,000 hectares. However, there are several very large cotton-growing operations, owned by international companies, ranging in size from 30,000 to 90,000 hectares.

The Australian industry produced a record crop in 2011/2012, with more than 583,000 hectares planted. From this area, more than 5 million bales, with a forecast value of close to $3 billion, was produced. Australian growers produce yields that are around three times the world average.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Cotton fibre, or lint, is spun into thread that is woven or knitted into a wide range of fabrics such as velvet, corduroy, chambray, velour, jersey and flannel. The fabric is used to make business, work and casual wear including denim jeans, socks, towels, t-shirts, bed sheets and underwear. It is also used for home furnishings, car-tyre cord, fishnets and bookbinding. Industrial applications of the fabric include tarpaulins, tents, hotel sheets and army uniforms.

It is a sought-after fibre due to its softness, non-allergenic properties, ability to be blended with synthetic and natural fibres, easiness to dye, strength and breathability.

The very short fibres that remain on the cottonseed after ginning are called linters, and these can be used to produce items such as bandages, swabs, bank notes, cotton buds and x-rays.

Cottonseed and trash are by-products of the ginning process. Cottonseed is mostly used to extract cottonseed oil. Cottonseed oil is cholesterol free, high in poly-unsaturated fats and contains high levels of anti-oxidants (vitamin E) that contribute to its long shelf life. It is particularly sought by restaurant owners and snack food manufacturers for deep frying, and it is used in the manufacture of some margarines and salad dressings.

Cottonseed oil is also used to make products such as soap, emulsifiers, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, rubber, paint, water proofing agents and candles.

The by-product of the oil-extraction process is meal, which is used as stockfeed. Cottonseed meal is a high protein meal that can be fed to many animals, however as a by-product of the oil extraction process it is relatively low in energy. It can make an ideal component for feed rations.

Whole cottonseed can be used as a supplement for ruminant livestock. It is high in energy, protein and fibre, and can be fed as a supplement to dry standing pasture or as an ingredient in feedlot rations. Whole cottonseed and meal can contain up to 1% gossypol, which is toxic to animals when fed in large quantities. Whole cottonseed is safe for ruminants but it must not be fed to pigs, poultry and horses. Cottonseed meal can contain up to 0.1% gossypol, but intake quantities should still be monitored, as for whole cottonseed.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Cotton is grown in dryland and irrigation regions in central and southern Queensland, and most irrigated regions of New South Wales. In central Queensland, a small amount is grown near Emerald, Theodore and Biloela but most of Queensland’s production is in the regions of the Darling Downs, St George, Dirranbandi and the Macintyre Valley. In New South Wales, the major production areas are south of the Queensland border on the Macintyre River and in the Gwydir, Namoi and Macquarie valleys of northern New South Wales. To a lesser extent, cotton is also grown along the Barwon and Darling rivers in western New South Wales. In the last few years there has been considerable expansion in the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee valleys in southern New South Wales with reports of trials in Victoria.

Soil type

Cotton is predominantly grown on medium to heavy textured soils such as alluvial soils, black earths, cracking clay soils, and some duplex soils.

The key properties for a good cotton soil are non-crusting surfaces, good aeration and good porosity. It has poor tolerance of waterlogging, so the subsoil should have low sodicity.

The optimum soil pH range(CaCl2) is 5.5–7.0, but it can tolerate higher pH soils, which are common where it has historically been grown. Cotton is very sensitive to soluble aluminium that may be released when soil pH drops below 5.0.

Cotton is more tolerant of soil salinity than most other crops. Yield loss may occur in very saline soils, with an electrical conductivity of about 1.33 dS/m.

SOILpak for cotton growers provides detailed information about soil suitability and soil management for crops.

Climate

Cotton is a summer-growing crop that prefers high temperatures and low humidity. Daily temperatures during early vegetative growth, bud formation and flowering should be in the range 20–30°C; night temperatures during this period should not be lower than 12°C. During boll development and maturation, temperatures between 27 and 32°C are ideal; yields will be reduced over 38°C.

It is very sensitive to frost, however being a summer growing crop, planting time should avoid the risk of spring frosts.

Research and field trials show that crops need on average about 700–750mm of water. For most crops, rainfall is supplemented by irrigation. For dryland crops, the ability to sow on 200mm of moisture in the soil profile is more important than an annual rainfall amount.

Varieties

Variety development for Australian cotton is managed by CSIRO, in close consultation with industry, and since 1984, 113 varieties have been released. Approximately 95% of the cotton planted in Australia contains one or two of transgenic traits for resistance to heliothis attack or tolerance of commonly used herbicides. Growers must undertake a ‘Technology User Agreement’ (see ‘Regulatory considerations’ section) to grow varieties containing transgenic traits.

Variety selection by the grower is generally based on yield potential, fibre quality and disease resistance, as well as growing region and production system (dryland or irrigated). Chapter 7 of the Australian Cotton Production Manual 2018 provides more information about selecting a variety.

Planting and crop management

Most aspects of cotton crop management that increase/optimise yield will also increase/optimise fibre quality. Yield and fibre quality are the basis for determining payment and the publication FIBREpak details how crop management, from sowing to harvest, influences fibre quality.

Good seedbed preparation is essential for even sowing depth and uniform germination and establishment of the crop. Beds must be formed so that the root zone of the plant remains well drained after irrigation and rain, as the plants do not tolerate waterlogging.

Planting takes place from mid-September through to mid-November, depending on growing region, soil temperature, soil moisture and variety. Planting should occur when the minimum soil temperature at seed depth is maintained at 12-14°C or higher for three days, and rising. Recommended soil temperature for dryland cotton is 18°C. 

Average soil temperature throughout the planting period will vary from region to region. Low soil temperatures will reduce root growth, and water and nutrient uptake, increasing the susceptibility of germinating plants to diseases and insects.

Sowing on time is critical to ensure that all the fibre development phases occur at the warmest and sunniest times of the growing season. Late sowing can negatively affect yield and fibre quality parameters such as micronaire.

Soil moisture is important for seed germination. Dryland crops should ideally have 200mm of soil moisture in the top 1.5m of the soil profile at planting. Inadequate soil moisture at planting can adversely affect yield and fibre quality. Irrigated crops should be sown into moist soil, from either pre-irrigation or rainfall; or sown into dry soil and then watered up.

Fertiliser application ensures that the crop has sufficient nutrients to grow well and meet yield potential. Irrigated crops needs about 240kg/N/ha, 30kg/P/ha and 20kg/K/ha, however rates vary widely depending on farming history. Detailed nutrient management information is available in the publication NUTRIpak — A practical guide to cotton nutrition.

For irrigated crops, careful water management is essential for efficient use of water, and maximising yield potential and fibre quality. Peak flowering through to early boll development is a critical irrigation period; and too little or too much water at this stage can affect growth, yield and quality. The use of water meters and soil moisture monitoring technology enables water management to be finely tuned and avoids waterlogging of the crop. Irrigation applications should be determined with full understanding of soil properties (especially drainage) and in consultation with weather forecasts (to avoid watering when reasonable rainfall is expected).

Research and field trials show that crops use on average about 700–750mm (7.0–7.5 ML/ha) of water. Some of this total will be supplied by stored soil moisture and growing season rainfall. The number of irrigations required will vary from three to eight depending on seasonal conditions. Chapter 16 of the Australian Cotton Production Manual 2018 provides general discussion about irrigation management and detailed information is available in the WATERpak publication.

The Australian Cotton Production Manual 2018 provides extensive information about planting and managing a cotton crop.

Weeds, pests, and diseases

Cotton crops require weekly monitoring of weeds, pests and diseases throughout the growing season, and growers will most likely need to engage an agronomist for this task.

Weed management is a season-long program using varied methods of weed control. Good seedbed preparation will reduce the weed seed bank; planting density will help suppress weed growth, and herbicide applications at planting and during crop growth will be important to reduce competition and contamination. Useful information about weed management for crops includes WEEDpak—a guide for integrated management of weeds in cotton and Cotton Pest Management Guide 2017-18.

Cotton crops host both ‘good’ bugs and ‘bad’ bugs, therefore it is recommended that growers engage an agronomist to regularly monitor the crop, identify pests present and advise on an effective control program. Common pests in cotton crops include Helicoverpa spp., silverleaf whitefly, cotton aphid, false wireworms, thrips, green mirid, two spotted mites and green vegetable bug.

Useful information about pest management for crops includes Cotton Pest Management Guide 2017-18Pests & Beneficials in Australian cotton landscapes, and Integrated Pest Management Guidelines for Cotton Production Systems in Australia.

Useful information about disease management for crops is listed on the Cotton Cooperative Research Centre website. Farm hygiene procedures help control diseases, and ongoing monitoring of the crop is critical.

The Australian industry works with Plant Health Australia to minimise the risk of the introduction of exotic pests and diseases. The Industry Biosecurity Plan for the Cotton Industry outlines key threats to the industry, risk mitigation plans, identification and categorisation of exotic pests and contingency plans. The Farm Biosecurity Manual for the Cotton Industry contains information to help producers to implement biosecurity on individual farms.

Infrastructure Requirements

Large scale agricultural machinery, tractors, cultivation equipment (including an inter-row cultivator), a row planter or adapted seeder or drills, and boom sprayers, are required to grow cotton. Harvest requires a mechanical cotton picker, tractor-towed boll buggies and module (bale) builders; or a picker with an on-board round-bale module-builder. Loaders and trucks to transport cotton modules to centralised on-farm storage and the gin are required. High quality tarpaulins will be required to keep module stacks clean and dry. Some or all of the operations required to produce cotton can be carried out by contractors, which is an option to alleviate capital investment, however the cost of not being able to secure a contractor at critical times must also be taken into consideration. The Australian Cotton Production Manual 2018 provide detailed explanations of machinery required for cotton production.

Irrigated fields must be landformed and levelled, and have the capacity to recycle water. Water supply storages will be required if the farm is not gravity supplied by an irrigation infrastructure operator. On-farm irrigation delivery varies from flood irrigation of fields, using siphons or bankless channels, to overhead spray irrigation and surface or subsurface drip tape. Consult an agronomist, irrigation specialist and other cotton growers to determine the best irrigation system for your situation. Irrigation systems are explained in WATERpak—a guide for irrigation management in cotton.

Harvesting & Processing

The cotton plant is an indeterminate plant, which means it produces flowers and develops fruit (bolls) over an extended period. To maximise fibre quality and harvest in favourable conditions, there are several strategies to cease crop growth in a timely manner, including the timing of the final irrigation and using chemicals to defoliate the plant. The aim is to harvest the crop before autumn rains and the first frost. The publication FIBREpak details crop management at harvest, with explanations of how management influences fibre quality.

The crop is harvested in autumn when the bolls are open, the lint is dry and the seed is hard, using self-propelled pickers. Once harvested modern picking machines press and wrap the cotton into round modules within the picker and leave the modules in the field for accumulation. In some cases the seed cotton is transferred to the module-making area, where the cotton is pressed into large rectangular, truck-sized modules or into large round modules.

Modules are delivered to the gin for processing. Gins are highly automated and seed cotton goes through several stages to clean plant matter from the fibre, separate the lint from the seed and remove any knotted fibre or fibre with seed coating attached. FIBREpak provides details on the ginning process. Cotton can be transported long distances to ginning facilities. There are strict transport regulations for the movement of modules and Cotton Australia has specific guidelines for the safe transport and handling of cotton modules.

The cleaned white fibre is then pressed into bales of 227 kilograms and each bale is classed so it can be graded for marketing, and sold according to quality parameters. Grade will be determined by colour, staple length, fibre strength, micronaire, neps (or knottiness), stickiness and trash content.

The lint makes up about 38-40% of the picked cotton, and about 55% by weight is cottonseed. Cottonseed is a useful and at times valuable by-product of cotton fibre production, used to produce stockfeed or crushed to produce oil. Trash represents the remaining 5-10% of ginned cotton’s weight and is made up of mostly leaves and plant parts. The grower will make arrangements with the ginning organisation for marketing the cottonseed.

Cotton is a perennial woody shrub, therefore after harvest, cultivation and/or herbicide application is needed to prevent the stub of the harvested plant from ratooning (reshooting). Volunteer cotton, germinating from seed that has fallen on the ground during picking can become a major weed in a subsequent crop, and cultivation and herbicide is required to control new plants. This is usually managed with a cultivation, known as pupae busting, which is a compulsory part of the transgenic cotton licence to reduce resistance. Although pupae busting is not primarily for weed control but to ensure that any potentially resistant Heliothis pupa are destroyed, the process assists with weed control.

Markets & Marketing

There are about 100 cotton-producing countries in the world and world production averages 26 million tonnes annually.

China and India accounted for about 50% of world production, producing 33 million bales and 27 million bales, respectively. The United States was the third largest producer at 18 million bales, followed by Pakistan (10.3 million), Brazil (9.3 million), Uzbekistan (4.6 million) and Australia (1.9 million). China, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Turkey were the world’s major importers of cotton.

About 99% of raw cotton is exported and statistics show that 63% of total exports went to China, 11% to Indonesia, 8% to Thailand, 5% to Bangladesh and the remainder to other countries, mainly in Asia.

Australian growers generally produce very high quality cotton with low contamination that commands a premium price on the world market.

The price that a grower receives for a bale of cotton is influenced by many factors including the state of the world economy, agricultural politics, fashion trends, synthetic fibre price, weather, natural disasters and cotton’s own supply and demand. Prices will vary on an annual basis due to global demand and the currency exchange rate of the Australian dollar.

Generally cotton growers sell their cotton to a merchant who then sells into world markets.

Price volatility encourages most cotton growers to use one or several forward contracting options; as well as use a range of tools such as futures trading, options, locking in exchange rates and foreign currency trading to provide price security and stability across different seasons.

As cottonseed is a valuable product of cotton production, it requires marketing in its own right. Globally, about 40 million tonnes of cottonseed is produced annually and only 2% is exported from its country of origin. Key markets for whole cottonseed are China (for crushing), the United States (for dairy stockfeed), Japan (for crushing and stockfeed) and Korea (for stockfeed).

Cottonseed is the second largest source of vegetable oil in Australia, after canola, and annual oil production was just over 100,000 tonnes and, just over 300,000 tonnes of cottonseed meal, the by-product of oil extraction, was produced.

The size of the cotton crop will determine the tonnage of whole seed available for export, but the outlook for cottonseed exports is strong given the increasing demand for cottonseed as stockfeed in Asia and for crushing in China. It is similar for the domestic market.

The price of cottonseed is closely related to the price of feed grains, and fluctuates accordingly.

Growers need to work with their ginning organisation to secure the best price for cottonseed. Generally, growers sell their lint to a cotton merchant. Cottonseed may be sold through the same merchant, through a merchant specialising in cottonseed, or directly to the end user. Whole cottonseed is purchased by oil producers, stockfeed manufacturers, or livestock owners. In some seasons some ginning companies may offer to take ownership of seed in lieu of a ginning charge (also known as a ‘gin for seed’ contract).

The marketing of cotton is an open, sophisticated and highly competitive system, in which a grower must have sound marketing and financial skills to participate or engage a trusted marketer and financier. The Australian Cotton Production Manual 2018 provides more detail on the economics of cotton production and marketing of the crop. Information about marketing and risk management is also provided in the publication Grower Marketing Risk Handbook.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

Success in cotton production requires attention to detail, the ability to carry out all operations on time, and strong relationships with agronomists and marketers. Prospective growers are advised to have all steps of production and marketing planned before they invest in the enterprise. 

Each year about 95% of the crop grown has genetically modified (GM) traits, and this biotechnology has reduced insecticide applications by 87% in ten years since 2002, however spraying of insecticides and herbicides is still required. To grow GM varieties, a grower must establish a contract with the owner of the technology (see the ‘Regulatory considerations’ section) and undertake specified resistance management and crop management plans. This requires a significant level of crop monitoring and record keeping throughout the season.

All aspects of agronomy and harvest management can affect the key quality parameters. Growers must be prepared to follow established production principles, and seek and use expert advice at all stages of crop production, if they are to achieve good quality fibre.

Cotton is particularly sensitive to phenoxy herbicides (including 2,4-D), which are used on other crops or fallows for summer weed control in cotton growing areas. To improve knowledge and understanding of where cotton crops are located, the industry has developed cotton map, a web-based tool where growers can show where their cotton crops are planted. All growers are encouraged to consult the map before using pesticides.

The marketing of cotton is an open, sophisticated and highly competitive system, in which a grower must have sound marketing and financial skills to participate or engage a trusted marketer. It is recommended that new growers have a ginning contract in place prior to planting.

Regulatory considerations

Cotton growers are subject to standard laws and regulations that apply to farmers and landholders, such as safe use and management of pesticides, occupational health and safety, and transport and movement of heavy vehicles, machinery and loads on public roads. The cotton industry has developed an on-line farm management tool, myBMP, to assist cotton growers manage their legislative requirements and environmental and employer responsibilities.

Growers planning to use varieties with biotechnology traits must obtain an annual ‘Technology User Agreement’ (TUA) with the company that developed and commercialised the technology.

The TUA defines the terms and conditions associated with use of the technology. It also includes stewardship requirements to ensure the traits continue to provide value to growers and more importantly provide a basis for the introduction of new novel traits. A new grower will be required to attend an accreditation/information session for each trait/technology and biotech seed cannot be ordered unless the grower is accredited. An industry advisor or agronomist can provide more information about the agreement process.

Publications

Publications/ information products

Australian Cotton Production Manual 2018 Cotton Research and Development Corporation (2018)

Cotton Pest Management Guide 2017-18 Cotton Research and Development Corporation and Cottoninfo (2017)

Pests and Beneficials in Australian Cotton Landscapes Cottoninfo (2016)

Farm Biosecurity Manual for the Cotton Industry Plant Health Australia

myBMP cotton industry guide to best practice in cotton production

Publications A listing of publications on various aspects of Australian cotton farm management on the CRDC website

SOILpak – for cotton growers NSW Department of Primary Industries

Fact Sheets Cotton Australia

FIBREpak – A guide to improving Australian Cotton Fibre Quality, Cotton Research and Development Corporation and CSIRO (2018)

WATERpak – A guide for irrigation management in cotton and grain farming systems, Cotton Research and Development Corporation and CSIRO (2012)

WEEDpak – A guide to integrated weed management in cotton, Cotton Research and Development Corporation and CSIRO (2013)

NUTRIpak – A practical guide to cotton nutrition, Cotton Research and Development Corporation (2001)

Other resources

CottonInfo – cotton industry extension program

International Cotton Advisory Committee  An organisation that assists governments to foster a healthy world cotton economy.

Australian Cotton Shippers Association

Cotton NSW Department of Primary Industries

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisations page on cotton

Industry Bodies

Cotton Australia is the peak body for Australia’s cotton growing industry and all regional Cotton Grower Associations are members of Cotton Australia

Cotton Research and Development Corporation manages levy funds for cotton research and development

Cotton Seed Distributors a grower owned and controlled organisation that invests in local research and plant breeding for the benefit of the Australian cotton industry

Image Gallery

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Cotton planting (source Jamie Condon; Cotton Australia)

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Cotton crop

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Cotton bales ready for transport (source Cotton Australia)

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Cotton picking (source Nick Robinson; Cotton Australia)

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Close up of cotton bolls

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Cotton yarn (source Cotton Australia)