Cotton growers battle for contractors as late pick continues

Emma Alsop, July 6, 2022

Photo: Hart Custom Farming

DEMAND continues to be high for cotton-picking contractors, as the late and weather-disrupted harvest combines with a projected record crop to create a bottle-necked end to the 2022 cotton season across most regions.

With picking usually starting at Central Queensland before moving down to southern Queensland and into New South Wales, southern growers are seeing the most disruptions.

Southern Valleys Cotton Growers’ Association vice chair and Deniliquin grower Lachlan Danckert said he was lucky to get access to a picker at the ideal time for his crop, but others in his district weren’t as lucky.

“Generally speaking, most people were struggling, and it was pretty serious,” Mr Danckert said.

“They were struggling to get people to commit and some people, who had contractors lined up, had it fall through because contractors had better opportunities, other things going on or were delayed.

“The northern crop was delayed with weather and that pushed their crop into the same time frame when we start picking, so you had picking going on in the same week from Emerald to Deniliquin.”

He said alongside these supply problems, some contractors were getting bogged and could not access road networks and paddocks due to the wet conditions.

“Our [Cotton Growers Association] is trying to get the word out, like via a trading post, for people who are struggling to try and find contractors or if they want to go to the point of trying to buy a picker.

“Some of the growers who would do just about anything not to buy a picker are considering it this year.”

Cotton Seed Distributors Extension & Development Agronomist Bob Ford who is based in the Upper Namoi region said he estimated that southern NSW region is only about 50 per cent through picking the 2022 crop.

He said the Upper Namoi is fairing better with 65-70pc picked and Lower Namoi is even further long with about 80pc harvested.

“We have had three weeks of relatively good weather and we haven’t been able to get back on track but we have been able to get a lot of cotton harvested,” Mr Ford said.

“Majority of the cotton overall has been picked.

“The area that is lagging is southern NSW, mainly because the delay in picker contractors.

“The lateness of the crop has also meant that they aren’t getting as many picker hours in a day.

“If it was in April, they would pick around the clock sometimes, but at the moment they are probably only doing 6-7 hours picking in the Namoi.

“Hence, everything is slower in terms of getting it done.”

Neighbours helping neighbours

Mr Ford said the lack of machines in some regions has prompted some growers who own pickers to contract them out to neighbouring properties.

“There have been some pretty good neighbours who normally don’t contract their pickers, who are doing a lot of picking for neighbours.

“It’s that old Australian thing of helping your neighbour out.”

Cotton Australia Central Highlands regional manager Renee Anderson said she is seeming similar instances of people helping fellow growers to get the crop harvested in time.

“The last few growers are having trouble because most of the pickers have gone down south,” Ms Anderson said.

“There is a lot of neighbours helping out doing contracting in the area.”

Growers who were able to harvest cotton before the May rainfall did fewer quality issues. Photo: Emma Ayliffe

Minor downgrades reported

Mr Ford said the delays in picking, as well as the ongoing wet weather, has caused some downgrades in his region, but not to the level anticipated a few months ago.

“The early stuff was really good and attracting a premium.

“The crops that were picked in April-May, those crops were generally pretty good on yield too, from 10 to 13 bales per hectare, depending on the area you were in.

“The later stuff into June-July it has just been down a grade, down to 41s, which is a $50 penalty per bale.

“It’s been offset by the price increase; cotton has continued to rally, and that has certainly helped.

“With the rain that we have had, I thought it would have degraded it a lot worse, but it hasn’t, which is good.

“There is talk that some growers lost a bale or two to the hectare, but that is in the extreme where they had lots of rain, like 70-100mm downfalls.”

Mr Ford said the dry weather experienced by most growing regions in the past three weeks allowed time for the harvest to progress.

“Luckily, in the last three weeks, the pickers from Queensland have migrated down into the Namoi and Gwydir system and have started taking off lots and lots of cotton.”

Gwydir Valley Cotton Growers’ Association chair Mick Humphries said the dry conditions over the past month enabled him to finish his cotton harvest.

He said not all growers in his region were as lucky, with about 25pc still to be picked.

“We were fortunate enough to finish a few weeks ago, but there are still a lot of people still picking.

“It has been a very drawn-out season, but there has been a lot of progress made in the last three or four weeks.”

Mr Humphries said he expects some level of discounts to the late harvested crop coming from his region.

“Ginning has been fairly mixed.

“A lot of the stuff that was picked after the bigger falls in May there will probably be quality discounts there.”

Record crop possible

Despite harvest delays, Cotton Australia chief executive officer Adam Kay said in a recent speech to the Rural Press Club that the 2022 crop is now set to be around 5.5 million bales (Mb).

This is higher than the 5.2Mb figure announced in February this year and above the previous record crop of 5.3Mb grown in 2011-12.

At this stage, it is unclear whether the crop will hit this record figure.

Mr Kay said, despite delays and weather problems, the predicted size of the 2022 crop is a testament to the skills of growers and the wider industry.

“It is quite an exciting time for the industry as a whole,” Mr Kay said.

“With water available, good prices available, they can forward sell, they can hedge that crop and take advantage of the good prices that are out there.

“We are expected a similar season next year with the water that is in the storages and held on farm. We think there is going to be another great year next year.”


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