Innovations in cotton

Given that Australia’s cotton industry already boasts the world’s highest yields, the world’s best-quality lint and the world’s best water use efficiency, there doesn’t seem much left to do. Luckily, the industry isn’t thinking that way. It reached its current enviable position through decades of investment in innovation, and that investment is growing—from $49 million in 2012–13 to $66 million in 2014–15.

Necessity is the mother of invention, the proverb goes, and so it is with the Australian cotton industry. It grows only 3 per cent of the world’s cotton crop in an affluent country with a high cost of production and high social licence standards for industry. To thrive, Australian cotton growers have to produce fibre in a way that combines the often-antagonistic traits of quality, sustainability and competitive pricing.

It succeeds, says Ian Taylor, General Manager of the Cotton Research Development Corporation (CRDC), by fearlessly looking at the future, and then working out how to get there first.

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Pioneering digital agriculture

Currently, the industry is scoping its 2018–2023 strategic plan. That exercise doesn’t just plan for the known, Taylor reports, but tries to anticipate the unknown, too. As part of its analysis, the industry enlisted a think-tank of experts from tech-focused organisations, such as CSIRO and Telstra, and asked them to consider how technologies currently outside the cotton sector might be incorporated into the industry in coming years.

The oncoming wave of automation, robotics and data analytics was high on the list. The Australian cotton industry began work on converting data to management about 15 years ago, Taylor says, so is already familiar with the potential of digital agriculture.

In fact, the industry is already looking past the bling to what automation technologies will mean for the human resources that will always drive the sector’s success; to minimise the human impact of automation, the industry is launching programs to train its people in human resource management and leadership, “to ensure we always have appropriately trained people coming through”.

Developing new-gen cotton fibre

More novel than automation, and potentially more difficult, is the idea of adopting the strategies of cotton’s major competitor—man-made fibres—for a new generation of cotton-based fibres. That includes the use of cotton in synthetic materials such as carbon fibre and high-tech wound dressings, but it goes further.

“Can we dissolve cotton fibre,” muses Taylor, “and reconstitute it in a way that allows us to create a filament that retains cotton’s intrinsic characteristics while letting us introduce some more functional aspects, like greater elasticity?

“A lot of people prefer to wear cotton because of its breathability and feel, but end up wearing synthetic fibres because of their functional aspect.”

A reconstituted cotton filament would steal some of the marketing cues from man-made fibres and widen the fibre’s market. Cotton currently makes up about a quarter of the global fibre market; oil-based synthetic fibres comprise 62 per cent.

And, Taylor adds, the ability to dissolve and reconstitute cotton could also add to the fibre’s environmental credentials if, for instance, old discarded cotton clothing could be rendered down and reborn as new filaments for new purposes.

Adopting smarter systems

These ideas are far-reaching, with unknown potential. The real success of the Australian industry lies with the hard-won incremental gains of farmers and researchers.

The biggest jump in the industry’s research budget between 2012–13 and 2014–15 was in the area of ‘farming systems’, where the investment nearly doubled from $20 million to $36 million.

Plant breeding has been a major driver of productivity, Taylor says, but the calculation is that about 48 per cent of the productivity gains from breeding have been driven by the plant, and 52 per cent by adjustments to farm management—hence the big investment in farming systems.

Cheaper, more ubiquitous technology promises to further those gains, partly by narrowing the management target from fields or sectors down to the individual plants. “We want to be able to manage every cotton plant for optimal performance,” says Taylor.

One emerging possibility lies in canopy sensors able to measure stress accumulation in the plant, including those caused by nutritional deficiencies. With sensors hooked to a tractor, operating in real time and linked to a fertiliser rig capable of highly targeted applications, such technology could boost productivity and minimise fertiliser waste.


Optimising soil-plant-fertiliser interactions

Similar thinking about thrifty resource use for optimal production is behind the industry’s multi-pronged research investment into understanding soil-plant-fertiliser interactions.

Most applied nitrogen is lost (as greenhouse gases) when nitrogen fertiliser volatilises during irrigation, but several projects are investigating how to deliver nitrogen to fields in formulations that don’t break down under irrigation.

Others are investigating the buffering role of soil carbon, which work by CRDC has shown to be capable of reducing nitrogen applications by up to 50 kg/ha when it has enough presence in the soil to act as a nutrient buffer.


Maximising on-farm energy efficiency

The raw energy needed to run a cotton farm—minimising its cost, and its impact on climate change—is also the subject of several research projects.

Solar-assisted pumping of irrigation water is already a working reality, and other ways of capturing wasted energy are being explored. Running gravity-fed irrigation water through a hydro-power generator, effectively converting the force of gravity to electricity, is showing promise.

In short, Australia’s cotton industry ‘innovation research’ portfolio is surprisingly deep and wide for a sector already at the top of its game. But in a fast-changing world, staying still means going backwards against the competition. That’s a position that the cotton industry is unused to, and besides, Taylor notes that it has a modest goal driving it forward: to be “global leaders in sustainable agriculture”.

Words: Matthew Cawood

Reproduced from the Autumn 2017 edition of Westpac’s Agribusiness publication "Produce"

The articles represent the views of the authors and not necessarily that of the Bank. You should seek independent professional advice before acting on any matters set out in the articles.