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Top end Australia

1 Jun - 1 Jul 1999

Cotton's Northern Exposure

Seventeen great white hunters left Brisbane airport on July 2 1999 for the Northern Cotton Safari. Our mission — to seek out new crops of cotton — to boldly grow where no one has grown before (well, nearly no one).

The wonders of Richmond

When you first come across Richmond, Queensland, you realise how very little it has in common with its namesake in London. True, they are both nestled on the banks of a river, but that’s pretty much where the comparison ends. 

There is no way the mayor of Richmond, London would have met us and spent the day showing us around. That’s exactly what Richmond, Queensland mayor John Wharton did — along with the deputy mayor and most of the council. They also got to know us even better that night at the Mud Hut Hotel. And does Richmond, London have acres and acres of cattle-farming priced black soil plains? No — just a few square yards of overpriced tarmac. 

Surface water is a bit infrequent in Richmond, Queensland. Staging a rowing competition on the Flinders River would present some problems. But when the Flinders runs, it carries a huge volume of water.

There is a great cotton growing climate too, with crops planted in December to make the best use of the summer rainfall. 

And did I mention the marine dinosaur fossils? Best in the world and all housed in a museum in town. 

A winter’s tale in Katherine

Our first glimpse of winter grown cotton was at Katherine. Even if you are prepared for it, seeing a crop of cotton flowering in the middle of winter is still a bit of a shock. Especially when you find out the cotton hasn’t been sprayed.

The main complaint of Mike Kahl, the resident Northern Territory researcher, is that he can’t find enough eggs to do a Lepton test and so has no idea which species of heliothis he has. Our hearts bled for him. 

Over the past five years of cotton trials in the Katherine winter, Mike has sprayed his crop on average twice for heliothis and once for mirids. He has never had to spray for mites. In fact he has never seen them.

Desperate to find something wrong with the crop, we gleefully asked him what caused the purple colouring on the stems. Mike said that it was the cool nights, but it didn’t appear to adversely affect yield. We struck out there, but we were onto a winner when we asked about boll development in the winter.

Mike said that staple length was reduced compared to southern crops grown in summer. This appeared to be a common complaint right through the north and was the main reason that L23i is the dominant variety.

The sandy loam soils in Katherine were also seen as a bit of a concern. Furrow irrigation is out — the soils are just too freely draining. So alternative irrigation methods are needed — for instance low pressure overhead or drip.

But regardless of all that, fancy growing a cotton crop with only one or two insecticides!

Ord far from ordinary

Lake Argyle is enough to make any cotton grower drool. Calling it a lake is a bit like calling the Empire State Building a block of flats. With good reason it is classified as an inland sea.

Irrigation water in the Ord is doled out on a per hectare basis. A grower pays about $70 per hectare per year for his water regardless whether he uses one or 30 ML per hectare for the year. And irrigation water use hardly puts a dent in Lake Argyle. 

The Ord cotton crops (1000 hectares) were at about the same stage as Katherine. They had similar potential problems with staple length, but as with Katherine, the Ingard gene was expressing really well and there had been no sprays.

We checked out the research station and the Twynum–Colly enterprise with Gary Coulton. He said that Pix management was vital in the Ord, but quite different from southern crops. He was only applying 300 ml per hectare at first square. Because the season is cooling down as the cotton starts flowering, applying high rates of Pix in the middle of the year could reduce yield. Gary said that you just have to get used to growing a tall crop (bigger than 1.5 metres) if you want decent yields in the Ord.

Another impressive point about cotton throughout the north is the commitment to making IPM work. The low number of sprays means there are beneficial insects galore. These are being supplemented by trichogramma releases and encouraged by food sprays.

But the whole thing hinges on the Ingard gene expressing so well in the northern Australian climate. The situation will be further improved when two gene Ingard is commercially available.

Bolls at Broome

Now this was more like it. A few dust-settlers at the sunset bar and watching the sun melt into the Indian Ocean. 

The next day we saw the most advanced cotton of the trip. I had not even got into the crop when the boll fights started. 

Kimberley Agricultural Industries (John Logan) and Queenland Cotton have about 20 hectares of cotton run by Ivan McLeod. Ivan has set up a mini research station. He has a number of trials including nutrition, varieties and Pix management. The soils are very poor and freely draining, so drip irrigation is being used. The system was described as broadacre hydroponics.

There are still some land title issues to deal with. But once they are sorted out, there will potentially be 30,000 hectares based on a groundwater supply.

And that’s not all!

Apart from cotton, the common theme of the trip was food — especially seafood. You name it, we ate it and in some of the best locations. For instance on Darwin Wharf when two of the crew ordered the most obscenely large seafood platter that I have ever seen. And we didn’t just look at cotton. We checked out peanuts (not quite ready), sweet corn (just right), honey-dew and rock melons (spot on), and sugarcane (no one actually ate any of this). 

Free days saw some fly over the Bungle Bungles, some head to the Argyle diamond mine and one person was silly enough to go caving.

We covered a fair bit of northern Australia in the 10 days we were away and had plenty of laughs along the way — just ask PJ about his nulla nulla the next time you see him. Or about the ‘lizards’ in the hotel at Kununurra.