Georgia cotton group tours Australian production area

International travel provides a great opportunity to learn. A couple of years ago, members of the UGA Cotton Team were discussing future concerns of cotton producers in Georgia. We considered the issue of insecticide resistance and talked about where we might go to learn how to approach this problem.

Because of the intense pest pressure and the overall productivity of the cotton industry in Australia, we decided that we should plan a trip “down under.”

After months of e-mails and long-distance planning, eight University of Georgia scientists departed from Tifton at 2 p.m. on Feb. 16, 2001. Forty four hours later, at almost midnight on Sunday, Feb. 18, we arrived in Sydney. Following a brief night, another lengthy airport ticket counter negotiation, and a short flight, we were on the ground in the small town of Narrabri, New South Wales, at 9 a.m. on Monday morning. The group consisted of four agronomists, two entomologists, an engineer, and a weed scientist from Tifton.

Our itinerary was coordinated by scientists at the Australian Cotton Research Institute in Narrabri, which is a major center of cotton research and development in Australia. Our stay included two days in Narribri visiting with research station personnel and three days of travel in production areas in the Namoi, Gwydir, and McIntyre Valleys and near Darling Downs.

Unfamiliar names

We spent time in towns with strange names like Wee Waa, Goondiwindi, Moree, Dalby, and Toowoomba and visited farms in between. Growers, consultants, company representatives and Extension and research personnel shared their ideas and experiences about conventional and no-till systems, irrigated and rain-fed production, and maximum input and optimum input regimes.

Our stops included a huge corporate gin and a major commercial seed supplier, both of which have strong U.S. connections. We saw examples of the value-added concept, one in which local cotton was manufactured and marketed as fine cotton garments and a second where a farm family grew and produced naturally colored cotton knit shirts.

The Australian cotton acreage is slightly less than the state of Georgia, but over the past several years they have produced more than three million bales annually. Since 1990, they have had only one year in which the national yield average dipped below 1,200 pounds per acre. And, in five of those years, the average exceeded 1,340 pounds per acre.

Almost 95 percent of their production is exported each year, mostly to textile manufacturing countries of Southeast Asia. There are about 1,500 producers in Australia, and although many live in isolated rural areas, they are well connected through modern communications such as fax, e-mail and cell phones.

The production areas we toured had heavy clay soils noted for their tendency to shrink, swell and crack. Because it was dry, we could easily find cracks that were several inches deep. Many of the sites were furrow-irrigated with water transported through canal systems from rivers or occasionally, from huge impoundments designed to catch flood water, rainfall or well water.

On our initial farm visit, we observed cotton that was barely 30 inches tall, and we asked the farm manager his estimate on yield. He projected 3.2 bales, which was surprising because we had been unimpressed with the amount of fruit. We soon grasped the fact that because of low relative humidity, they normally harvest almost every boll they set. We saw spectacular cotton on one of the rare farms that employed center pivot irrigation.

Keep in mind that because they are in the Southern Hemisphere, their February is equivalent to our August in terms of crop calendar and temperature. While temperatures were not terribly hot, the sunlight was intense. The sky was clear and the sun was ever bright, perhaps because dust and humidity were low, and it gave the constant sensation of an impending sunburn.

Public sector

In terms of technology, public sector research personnel have an integral part in the establishment of rules and regulation of Bt and Roundup Ready cotton. By law, Bt cotton is restricted to only 30 percent of their total acreage. Helicoverpa armigera, a relative of our cotton bollworm, is the primary target of Bt cotton, but the technology is less dependable than here.

They routinely expect a decline in efficacy late in the season, a breakthrough of worms, and the necessity of insecticide sprays. The technology fee is considerably more than in the United States. They anticipate the development of two-gene Bt (Bollgard II) will enable expansion of cotton into northern Australia. Roundup Ready cotton is just being commercialized in Australia. Glyphosate, which was considerably cheaper in Australia than in the United States, is widely used as a burndown treatment and is an integral part of vegetation management in wheat-fallow rotations.

The Australian cotton industry involves numerous organizations, including those with a research and education agenda as well as those which address promotion and policy. There are many commercial entities that operate both there and here.

Growers participate in a mandatory checkoff of one dollar per bale. About 85 percent also contribute an additional one dollar per bale which goes to Cotton Australia, the equivalent of our National Cotton Council. These assessments, in conjunction with additional government funds, provide in excess of $15 million support each year for research and Extension efforts in Australia.

Key concerns of their industry include low prices, irrigation water supply and quality, worm and bug pests and Fusarium wilt. Among the many priorities of their research, cotton breeding clearly enjoys a prominent position. They see breeding as the road to yield and quality and the best means of dealing with many pest related issues.

Here are a few closing tidbits from our trip. Theirs is a modern culture, and the fact that they speak English makes travel simple, except that you drive on the “wrong” side of the road. Their language has an appealing accent with many humorous figures of speech. The exchange rate is very favorable (the Australian dollar is worth about half a U.S. dollar), which means that travel is quite economical. The Australians are very friendly. Many are international travelers who have visited or will visit the United States.

Women are more common in the professional agricultural workforce. In fact, two farmers' wives asked the question, “Where are your female co-workers?”

Australian beef generally is tough and a hamburger requires considerable gnawing to get a bite into your mouth. Breakfast sausage, even at the local McDonald's, tastes like overcooked Vienna sausage.

Nine days is too short a time to travel 30,000 miles. If you ever plan such a trip, stay a little longer. International travel in this age of airline uncertainties is VERY unpredictable, but it provides an incredible opportunity for information exchange.

Group observations

Craig Bednarz, cotton physiologist: Their soils are twice as deep as ours and hold about three times more water. These environmental advantages are the basis of their high yields. In terms of early season management, they are becoming less and less concerned with early season fruit retention. By taking advantage of the compensatory ability of the crop, they are minimizing early season intervention with insecticides.

Mike Bader, agricultural engineer: They are very conscious of water management. Just like here, water is everything. They effectively use water storage to capture runoff and flood waters for later use in the crop. In areas without irrigation, they employ no-till systems, wheat-fallow rotations and skip-row patterns to make the most of available water and to maximize yields. Regarding equipment, farmers there are no different when it comes to conceptualizing and creating. With limitations on local equipment manufacturing, many have developed unique equipment to meet specific on-farm needs.

Phillip Roberts, entomologist: Historically, Australian producers have fought heavy insect pressure and high levels of insecticide resistance. With IPM and Bt cotton, they are reducing the number of sprays. And, as they do, they will encounter more problems with bugs (plant bugs, stink bugs, etc.) just as we have in Georgia. Also, on the issue of early season fruit loss, considerable research effort has focused on plant compensation.

Early season insect feeding can severely damage the terminal, a condition they refer to as being “tipped out.” Some producers and consultants welcome this because of the development of multiple terminals with multiplied sites for fruit development. Conversely, some express concern that very high early fruit retention in Bt fields leads to premature cut-out and limited yields.

Glen Harris, soil scientist: The difference in soil type and the impact on fertilization and liming is obvious. Their “gray cracking clays” are high in pH and more fertile. In furrow irrigated fields, they routinely apply 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre as anhydrous ammonia at planting, expecting to lose about half the nitrogen through denitrification.

Many dryland producers used only about 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre. Their use of conservation-tillage unquestionably enhances their production in dryland. In terms of potassium fertility, we observed one field experiment in which severe potassium problems occurred in a sorghum/cotton rotation. Plants displayed premature leaf drop and leaf spot just like in Georgia. Commenting about our soils, they point out they prefer sand on their beaches not in their paddocks (fields)!

John Ruberson, entomologist: The Australian situation with aphids is complicated by the recent emergence of an aphid-vectored disease called “bonsai bunchy top.” Fortunately, we do not have this problem. The compensatory ability of the crop and their long growing season has reduced their concern about early season fruit retention. Some are ignoring early square loss altogether, while some in the more short-season areas are employing a response threshold of 60 percent retention. We need to continue to explore this concept here.

Stanley Culpepper, weed scientist: Of the 13 farms we visited, weed management was not among the top five challenges in their production. Our weed pressure is considerably greater. Their most troublesome weed is purple nutsedge. Most producers employ “chippers” (hoe hands) to physically remove weeds. Regarding herbicide resistance, in the United States, we have given little consideration to the possibility of weed resistance to glyphosate. Australians have identified ryegrass resistant to glyphosate, and they are developing stringent regulations to maintain the viability of this tool for their producers. We need to take note and learn from them.

Lloyd May, cotton breeder: One key reason the Australian cotton research effort has been so successful is that it is well coordinated, broad-based, and has been an uninterrupted effort for more than 40 years. The various scientific disciplines work well together, and their Extension efforts are coordinated and well supported. Their large plot variety evaluation system complements small-plot testing and is superior to all in the United States except the San Joaquin Valley of California.

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