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 Corporation, Cotton 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
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.