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Dawson Valley beef farmers cotton on to new agricultural opportunities

6 June 2022

A grower stands in a field of cotton
Andrew French said despite some grey skies, optimism is high among cotton growers in central Queensland. 
 

While beef prices are reaching record heights, some farmers in central Queensland are converting from cattle to cotton. 

Key points:

  • With high yields and high prices, there is optimism about the central Queensland cotton industry
  • Off the back of a unique SWIR water release, several growers in the Dawson Valley have started growing cotton for the first time
  • These licences are due to end in September, leaving growers in limbo
 

Greg Hutchinson of Hutchinson Ag said the cattle on his property in the Dawson Valley were slowly being pushed to the back corner as he developed more cropping country. 

"The returns we've been able to get from the irrigated cotton far surpass anything that we've been able to achieve with cattle," he said.

"It's fivefold probably what the gross returns, you can actually get off an irrigated cotton crop and even better when cotton prices are at a thousand dollars.

It seems other growers in the region have also sensed the opportunity.

Ian Becker lives at Passchendale near Moura and has planted cotton for the first time.

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Close-up of a cotton plant with cotton buds blooming in sunlight.
Cotton prices reached $1000 a bale in recent months and some central Queensland yields have reported over 20 bales per hectare.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

He said with input prices on the rise, the decision was all about the bottom line. 

"We're a young family, taking on debt, so we have to be growing those high-value crops," he said. 

"Gross margin was probably top of the list as to why we made the decision to grow cotton."

Just down the road at Paranui, Scott Becker has moved into cotton as well. 

"We were driven to get irrigation going and cotton is a really good fit when you look at the return per megalitre per hectare," he said.

"It's a bit of a learning curve ... but we're all still smiling and happy ... I think it's a good feeling in the industry and a good industry to be in."

Why cotton? Why now?

Greg Hutchinson said the climate has always been a major drawcard for growers in central Queensland.

"We get a lot of get-out-of-jail-free cards here in central Queensland in that we've got a long planting window," he said. 

"You run out of water [then] you get out of jail. You get too much water [then] you get out of jail.

"The thing that has held this region back is a lack of water."

That all changed in 2019 when a Strategic Water Infrastructure Reserve (SWIR) was released into the Dawson Valley Management Area on a three-year trial basis.

This water reserve is allocated to future infrastructure developments in the region and means licences include conditions to meet environmental flow objectives and protect existing users' access to water.

Andrew French grows cotton at Nandina near Theodore. 

He said grower access to the SWIR water has transformed the region.

"It's really boosted productivity in the Dawson Valley," he said.

"It's created a lot of new developments and it's really increasing the viability of the valley."

A man wearing a blue long-sleeved shirt stands in front of a dam
Greg Hutchinson has built two new dams in the past three years to store water he can now access as part of the SWIR.

Greg Hutchinson said growers have invested heavily off the back of this SWIR water release. 

"Irrigators have spent millions of dollars building off stream storage, putting pump stations in, developing irrigation fields," he said.

Time ticking on trial decision

The water licences granted for the SWIR water are due to expire in September and there has been no talk of future water access. 

Ian Becker said although the water was released on a trial basis, many growers had invested heavily off the back of the water release and could be left in limbo.

"Everyone was very upfront and they said that this is only a three-year option, but to go and release such a thing and not expect people to develop off the back of it, it just wouldn't have been utilised."

Two large pumping pipes going into the Dawson River
Many growers have invested heavily in water storage and infrastructure as a result of access to the SWIR water.(ABC Rural: Meg Bolton )

Scott Becker agreed and said it would be a waste to let water that meets all environmental flow conditions run out into the ocean and be wasted. 

"The teaspoon that we're taking out of the river can help produce the local economy and a whole heap of the things that come along with the crops we're growing," he said.

"I think it's a great thing."

Greg Hutchinson said although many growers have taken a gamble by investing so heavily off the back of a trial project, the results of the trial had been overwhelmingly positive. 

"We've taken a big gamble that the government is going to renew the SWIR and make it available again but there's been very limited information coming from the department," he said.

"It's been disappointing because the project has been so successful.

"This year alone there's probably been an extra 20,000 bales of cotton produced on the back of that SWIR water.

"If you put that in dollar terms at $1000 per bale that's an extra $20 million dollars production that's gone into farmers' pockets and into community businesses around the town and just the local economy."

Bales of cotton the back of a large truck
Despite being one of the smaller cotton regions in the nation, the SWIR water has helped the Dawson Valley cotton crop grow in recent years.(Lisa Herbert)
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Andrew French said it was important the department made contact with growers because a decision was critical for planning future seasons and further expansions. 

"A decision is crucial," he said. 

"I think it's important the department comes out to these areas and they talk about it," he said. 

"There are just a lot of unknowns."

A spokesperson for the Department of Regional Development, Manufacturing and Water said the trial was for a period of three years concluding in September 2022.

"The department is undertaking a review of the pilot program," the spokesperson said.

"Stakeholders have been consulted and initial feedback has been provided.

"This review is currently being finalised.

"Once complete, the Department will be in a position to make recommendations in relation to any continuation of the temporary release of the SWIR."